Behind the Scenes of a Medical Emergency

It was Christmas Eve in the early nineties; I was on shift, and the call came in near midnight. The woman was scared, tired and feeling a long way away from the comforts of home. She was in her 70s, retired and trying to enjoy her newfound freedom with her husband of 40 years—typical Snowbirds.

They were staying in their winter home, close to friends who played golf and an active community centre. The warm weather beat the -20 degree windchill and ice that they would have faced if they had not left in November. Their children were back in Canada with lives of their own: kids, work and a focus that did not include Mom and Dad.

Her husband had been out with his pals, when suddenly, he felt pressure in his chest, then a piercing pain that shot through to his left arm, leaving it numb. His breathing became laboured, and he fell over by his car (he was lucky that he was not driving). An ambulance was dispatched after the 911 call.

He was a healthy man; no prior major illnesses and a perfect physical exam every year. His bones may have creaked a little more each birthday, but he had his health. His doctor had suggested taking a baby aspirin each day as a precaution, but his ECG and stress tests were normal until that day. On the pavement, on the stretcher and in the back of the emergency vehicle, they performed CPR. They also medicated him and used a defibrillator twice during the hurried ride to the hospital. He had had a massive heart attack. There was damage to his heart, but he was alive. They had saved him, but he was in poor shape. When he arrived, the team logged him in, stabilized him and put him into the Cardiac Care Unit.

When his wife heard what had happened, it was three whole hours after he had hit the ground and he had already been booked into the hospital in a serious but stable condition.

In their 40 years together, they had never faced a serious medical condition, a financial problem, a family incident or even a car accident. They had lived an idyllic life with no real stresses. He had been a business professional, and she, a teacher.

She followed instructions well; she had phoned to report the medical emergency and to provide us with the necessary information. This would allow us to contact the hospital, physicians and ambulance service, and be prepared to organize additional resources if needed (for example, an air ambulance for transport back home when he was fit to fly).

It had been a long day for her, and I could hear it in her voice. I kept her on the phone to talk after she had given me the official information. I asked her how she was doing, if she needed anything, and I waited for her to answer. She broke down and all the fear came rushing through that phone line. I have been in these situations before and so have many of our assistance staff; we know that it is a crucial time for not only the patient but their loved ones, especially a long-time partner. There is just as much of a chance that they will both end up in trouble if we don’t get them support as quickly as possible. That support can be an efficient handling of the health care bureaucracies and a gentle caring voice—even if it is 2,000km away.

I talked to her about my daughter; she was small then, and I was able to describe how I was experiencing the world again through her eyes. The woman had been a teacher of 1st grade children and she listened intently to my stories, chiming in with her insight and calming down with each new discussion. I ended up talking with her for over three hours, and provided her with some tools on how to navigate the health care system, the hospital and her emotions.

Later, I received a letter from her. In that letter, she stated that I had saved her that night. Saving people is part of our job, and one that our people do 24/7. The line in the letter that I appreciate the most—and one I share when training new associates—is “I called an insurance company and reached human beings, warm and caring human beings.”

Every day, our assistance, security and medical staff receive calls from worldwide travellers in peril—sick, injured or just worried—and our health information specialists receive calls from Canadians who need more information on medical conditions, navigation, support or access to health resources. Each one of our front line people is trained to be compassionate, organized and knowledgeable. They care about the outcome and are there to assist you when you or your family need it most.

Click the images below to read the letter!

One Comment on "Behind the Scenes of a Medical Emergency"

  1. Jospina says:

    Great story, great experience, great job.

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