Communities may become ‘ambulance free’ zones

On Saturday, a tourist died outside a Teslin restaurant while the village ambulance carried car-crash victims to Whitehorse.

On Saturday, a tourist died outside a Teslin restaurant while the village ambulance carried car-crash victims to Whitehorse.

The death highlights the fact that, often, Yukon communities are ambulance-free zones.

“I often wish for signs, like Ghostbusters — an ambulance with a red line through it — were posted along the highway, because people coming down this highway don’t realize there’s no real ambulance coverage,” said Teslin volunteer ambulance attendant Richard Oziewicz.

He was only half joking.

The lack of ambulance coverage can prove deadly, as it did Saturday.

At 6 a.m., a car crashed five kilometres out of town.

Teslin has two volunteer ambulance attendants, but neither could be contacted.

Doug Martens was at Morley Lake with his family. His partner, Oziewicz was working beyond radio range.

So the RCMP called 31-year-old Rob Anderson, a former ambulance volunteer who no longer carries a radio.

“The RCMP were sitting outside my house waiting to see if I would answer the phone,” said Anderson.

“But if you get a call, you’ll always go.”

Anderson, assisted by a village duty nurse, drove the two injured victims toward Whitehorse.

Normally, Whitehorse crews would meet them halfway.

But on Saturday, Whitehorse ambulances were too busy. A crew didn’t intercept the Teslin ambulance until Marsh Lake’s Army Beach subdivision.

On the return trip, Anderson heard static on the radio.

By Squanga Lake, the broadcast was clear — a tourist in Teslin was having a heart attack.

“We were halfway back and I threw on the lights,” said Anderson.

Luckily, on-duty volunteer Oziewicz was back in radio-range and responded.

“It was shit-house luck he was close,” said Anderson.

But Oziewicz didn’t have any equipment — the oxygen tank, CPR masks and automatic defribulator were aboard the ambulance.

So Oziewicz performed CPR without a mask until the ambulance arrived.

When he got there, Anderson administered oxygen, and tried to restart the tourist’s heart, but it was too late.

The 64-year-old woman died.

Two days later, while wrestling his boat trailer onto his truck, Oziewicz brushes a strand of white hair off his face and points at the tailgate.

A leather-covered radio the size of a brick, and almost as heavy, rests on the bumper.

For the last 11 years, it’s been his ball and chain.

“I’m never really free,” he said, remembering calls in the dead of night, when the radio’s crackle jarred him awake.

For years, Oziewicz has wanted to retire, but that would leave the Teslin region with just one volunteer ambulance attendant.

“It’s hard to get volunteers,” said Oziewicz’s wife Brenda, Teslin’s ambulance supervisor.

“Lots of people would rather be doing something else — they’d rather be fishing.”

And there’s the “vomit factor,” added Richard Oziewicz.

Many people can’t handle dead bodies.

“It’s interesting that there are government departments sent out to pick up dead animals when they’re hit on the highways, but then when a person is smucked, they expect volunteers to deal with it,” said Martens, the second ambulance volunteer.

Martens has been a volunteer for four years. He’s been on call the whole time.

“It’s a labour of love,” he said.

Sitting on his cluttered kitchen table, Marten’s bulky radio dwarfs a coffee cup.

“I’ve been on call without a break since last summer, night and day,” he said.

The radio lets out two short beeps, as if to stress the point.

Marten fiddles with some knobs and listens.

Nothing.

“Must be a false alarm,” he said.

“Sometimes people hit the button by accident.”

A wee blond boy runs in, followed by a tiny girl.

“Dad can you start the generator?” the boy asked.

“They want to go on the computer,” said Martens’ wife.

“And that’s another thing, keeping the radio’s batteries charged; with us on solar power, it’s hard sometimes,” she said.

Being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week also takes a toll on the Martens family.

“I remember one time, our dog had just been run over in front of all four of our children — I was consoling them when the radio went off and I had to go,” said Martens.

“And it affects you emotionally.

“Little snapshots come back to you, scenes from accidents that you think about at home.

“Lots of people don’t want to do it, because you face some gory stuff,” he said.

“And there is also this fear that you might do something wrong, or make a mistake trying to save someone’s child.

“You don’t get much training for the responsibility you’re taking on.”

And over the years, people have worked with very little or no training, said Martens.

It’s a lot of responsibility for a volunteer, said Teslin resident Sharon Chatterton.

“That’s why nobody wants to serve — it’s stressful and it’s

dangerous.

“You don’t know what you’re walking into, and there’s all this blood and body fluid.

“Richard gave that woman CPR for at least 20 minutes on Saturday without a mask, and he knew nothing about her.”

It’s a thankless job, said Richard, who hears plenty of criticism.

The most common complaint is that it takes the ambulance too long to get there, he said.

“But our ‘little’ responsibility area goes all the way from Swift River to Jake’s Corner, and up the Canol Road to Quiet Lake — that’s over 300 kilometres of road.”

 All these tourists driving to Alaska from big cities down south get up here and have no idea how limited the ambulance service is, said Chatterton.

But Martens is not sure if the system could be improved.

“On Saturday, the only solution would have been to have a second ambulance,” he said.

“But then, for the last three months we haven’t gotten any calls at all — then two in one day.”

The problem is finding volunteers, said Brenda.

“It shouldn’t be about money, but, if the volunteers were paid a per diem, this might help.”

In BC, volunteer ambulance attendants get $2 to $5 a day, she said.

“It’s not much, but it helps.”

“After carrying a radio for six months, it felt like I’d had it for a year,” said Anderson.

“You have to pack it everywhere — you can never leave.”

“And if you miss a call, you beat yourself up, there’s guilt,” added Martens.

Richard maintains campsites for Yukon parks, and often drives way up the Canol Road, while Martens is a wilderness guide and outfitter.

Neither works near the ambulance bay.

Last summer, after Martens and Richard had been working without break for months, Brenda suggested shutting down the ambulance for a while, until they could attract more volunteers.

The government reacted by hiring Public Works employees to drive the ambulance.

“So these guys were getting paid to be on-call, but our volunteers aren’t,” said Brenda.

The volunteers get paid for time they spend attending emergencies.

While Teslin’s ambulance crew gropes for volunteers, Teslin’s volunteer fire department is swamped.

“We have 15 volunteers right now,” said Anderson, who is deputy fire chief.

“But that’s because the fire department is more macho — you get to burn stuff down and cut shit open.

“And it’s not as dangerous.

“Lots of these big tough bastards would pass out at the sight of human blood.”

On Monday, the village of Teslin received an $80,000 fire and rescue truck to complement the $240,000 fire truck it bought two years ago.

“That’s the difference between the municipality and YTG,” joked village CEO Wes Wirth.

The fire department falls under municipal jurisdiction; the territorial government runs ambulance services.

The new rescue vehicle is equipped with the Jaws of Life, shears and emergency first aid equipment.

“A few years back, Teslin had a Suburban with oxygen and other first aid supplies — a back-up ambulance,” said Chatterton.

“And this was a good idea.”

But the new fire rescue vehicle is not equipped to act as a secondary ambulance, said Wirth.

Running an ambulance is a concern every community has to deal with, said Pelly-Nisutlin MLA Dean Hassard, who’s been lobbying for a new Teslin ambulance for years.

“Once, while travelling to a call in Swift River, the ambulance started throwing out blue smoke,” said Martens.

The crew had to grab its first aid supplies and hitch to the call.

“Luckily we got picked up quickly,” he said.

“But then, who’s not going to stop?”

On Monday, while bumping around the village, Teslin’s ambulance seemed to be running well.

“I enjoy this,” said Martens,

driving the clunky vehicle like an old hand.

“It’s not always pleasant, but

I enjoy being there to help —

I’ve seen virtually dead people come back to life.”

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