Pa. 911 operator says ‘Help is on the way,’ but man dies waiting for ambulance during storm

By Dan Nephin, AP
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pa. man dies during storm when 911 calls unheeded

PITTSBURGH — With her boyfriend in severe abdominal pain, Sharon Edge called 911 for an ambulance in the early morning hours of Feb. 6. Heavy snow was falling — so heavy it would all but bring the city to a standstill — and Curtis Mitchell needed to go to a hospital.

“Help is on the way,” the operator said.

It never arrived.

Nearly 30 hours later — and 10 calls from the couple to 911, four 911 calls to them and at least a dozen calls between 911 and paramedics — Curtis Mitchell died at his home. His electricity knocked out, his heat long off, the 50-year-old former steelworker waited, huddled beneath blankets on his sofa.

“I’m very angry, because I feel they didn’t do their job like they supposed to,” said Edge, 51. “My man would still be living if they’da did they job like they was supposed to … They took somebody that I love away.”

Mitchell, on disability for depression, had a history of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, Edge said, and had spent nine days in a hospital in late January. He had been home about a week when he was overcome with pain. Autopsy results are pending, awaiting toxicology test results, authorities said.

Now Pittsburgh officials have ordered an investigation and reforms of the city’s emergency services system as Mitchell’s case highlighted key shortcomings:

— Details of Mitchell’s calls weren’t passed on from one 911 operator to another as shifts changed, so each call was treated as a new incident.

— Twice, ambulances were as close as a quarter-mile from Mitchell’s home but drivers said deep snow prevented the vehicles from crossing a small bridge over railroad tracks to reach him. Mitchell was told each time he’d have to walk through the snow to the ambulances; in neither case did paramedics walk to get him.

— Once, an ambulance made it across the bridge and was at the opposite end of the block on the narrow street where the couple lived — a little more than a football field’s length. Again, paramedics didn’t try to walk.

“We failed this person,” said Michael Huss, the city’s public safety director.

To be sure, Mitchell’s ordeal unfolded as the storm dumped nearly two feet of snow on Pittsburgh; the 911 system was swamped with more than twice as many calls as usual and overall emergency response was hampered.

Regardless of how deep the snow was, Huss said it was unacceptable that paramedics didn’t walk to help Mitchell. If they had, Huss believes Mitchell may have survived.

“… You get out of that damn truck and you walk to the residence,” Huss said. “That’s what needed to happen. We could have carried him out.”

The six paramedics on the three ambulances could be disciplined, Huss said. He declined to say what that might be.

Paramedics or firefighters will now be required to go to a caller’s door.

“Everyone needs to get a response,” Huss said Thursday.

That Mitchell died waiting to get to the hospital is a cruel coincidence.

Edge and Mitchell met eight years ago in an emergency room. Both were getting their medications under control for their mental illnesses, she said. He was being treated for depression; she has bipolar disorder.

“We’ve been stuck together ever since, like glue,” Edge said.

Several years ago, they moved into a small red brick rowhouse in Hazelwood, the riverside neighborhood that was home to Pittsburgh’s last working steel mill, which shut down a dozen years ago.

Sitting on the tan and blue fabric sofa where Mitchell died, Edge described him.

He enjoyed watching TV, particularly westerns. They hoped to get married by a justice of the peace in April, then celebrate with a little party.

“He did for his friends,” she said. “He looked out for other people when they needed stuff. He was there to help.”

They didn’t have a car. During the storm, a neighbor offered to drive them to a hospital but he couldn’t get his car shoveled out.

Edge is a little sketchy on details of Mitchell’s worsening condition and death. Then again, she didn’t think she’d need to relive them. She thought they first called 911 on the night of Feb. 5, but records indicate the first call was made about 2 a.m. on Feb 6. Sometime Friday night, the storm knocked out their power and the couple sought warmth under blankets as the house got colder.

Edge said Mitchell had begun to feel stomach pains during the week, but he tried to deal with it. By Friday morning, he woke up in pain. Still, he tried to manage with medication, she said.

A review of the 911 calls by the Associated Press shows no anger in Mitchell’s or Edge’s voices. There was no screaming. Conversations with operators were cordial and the couple seemed to understand the difficulties the snow posed.

Still, Mitchell and Edge let them know he was in pain.

“My stomach man, it’s real messed up. It’s killing me,” he tells a 911 operator about 11:15 a.m. on Feb. 6.

About 8 p.m. that night — in the eighth call to 911 — Edge tells an operator: “My boyfriend called for an ambulance. He’s in a lot of pain and we’ve been waiting for a couple hours now.”

At one point, Mitchell can be heard exclaiming “Oh man, what?” when Edge relayed to him that they would have to walk to the ambulance because of the snow. It was not clear when that conversation took place.

In all, three ambulances were dispatched at separate times. In each case, Mitchell was told he’d have to walk to them — and he canceled the calls.

As the hours went by, Mitchell’s pain intensified and he began to have shortness of breath. Because he complained of abdominal pain, which is generally not considered life-threatening, he was initially ranked as a medium priority. About 11:20 a.m. Saturday, his priority level was upgraded, but not as an emergency.

Mitchell tried to sleep. He took his prescriptions — oxycodone for pain and sleeping pills for his insomnia. Edge gave him the medication and closely followed the dosage, she said.

“All that time, he was dying and I didn’t even know it,” Edge said.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on Feb. 7, Edge made her last 911 call.

“I think my husband’s dead. Oh God, oh God,” she sobbed.

The 911 operator told Edge to calm down and asked for the address and phone number.

“I’ve been trying to get an ambulance here for three days. He’s been having stomach pains,” Edge said.

The operator talked Edge through a check to see if Mitchell was breathing. Try to get him onto the floor on his back, the operator said.

But Mitchell’s body was cold. Edge couldn’t wake him.

“Oh God, he can’t leave me … Curtis? Curtis?” Edge said, struggling to move him.

The operator assured Edge that paramedics were on the way.

“He’s dead,” Edge said.

“No, no, no. You’re going to stay with me,” the operator said, continuing the checks on Mitchell.

Finally, someone came to the door.

“Who is it?” asked Edge. “Is it the medics?”


“All right,” said the operator. “You did a good job. I’m going to hang up now. Let them in. Good bye.”

The snow had long since stopped falling. It took firefighters two minutes from being dispatched to reach the couple’s home.

They checked for a pulse, but it was too late.

“They said he was gone,” Edge said.

It would be five more hours before workers from the medical examiner’s office came for Mitchell’s body.

A police officer waited with her. Edge sat on the sofa with the body.

“I kissed and hugged him,” she said of Mitchell. “But it was all I could do.”

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