Local mayors are concerned demand from Ottawa for ambulances is putting Prescott and Russell residents at risk.

Legislation requires Prescott and Russell ambulances to respond to emergencies in Ottawa when needed, and vice-versa. However, Michel Chretien, head of emergency services for the United Counties, says Prescott and Russell is sending far more ambulances into Ottawa than the other way around. Other municipalities on the outskirts of Ottawa, like Renfrew County, have complained of a similar problem.

At a United Counties council meeting Wednesday, February 22, Chretien said demand from Ottawa is increasing. “We did almost 100 calls in two weeks, 18 in one day, outside of our territory,” he said. He said Prescott and Russell ambulances responded to about 1000 emergencies in Ottawa in 2016, as well as 450 in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry. The counties used to have an agreement with Ottawa that meant the counties got paid when an ambulance was sent to Ottawa, but when it expired it was not renegotiated.

Chretien said at one point on the evening of Tuesday, February 21, there were no ambulances in Prescott and Russell.

The situation is “totally unacceptable,” said Warden Gary Barton. “We’re putting our people at risk for a major, major city that should have its own services available.” Counties CAO Stephane Parisien called the situation “somewhat appalling.”

“It seems the only way this is going to get settled is when one of our residents dies, the province might wake up,” said Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux.

Half an hour for an ambulance

Claudia Gorenko of Embrun was home alone with her months-old son when he had several seizures. She was in touch with doctors at CHEO, who told her to try an extra dose of the medication her son has been prescribed to treat his condition. “It didn’t work, so an hour after his second seizure, he had a third seizure. His lips turned blue.” The doctor told her to call 911. “They said it wouldn’t be safe to drive in by myself, in case he seized in the car, if I was distracted they didn’t want me in an accident,” said Gorenko, who spoke with The Review on Thursday.

So she called 911. “Dispatch told me it would take 30 to 60 minutes for an ambulance,” she said. “Apparently they don’t consider it to be serious, even though my neurology team thought it was serious.”

While they waited, Benjamin’s seizure had stopped, but he needed medical attention. “It’s a waiting game. So he tends to be very very lethargic after this happens,” says Gorenko. His breathing was raspy so she performed mouth-to-mouth. Besides that, all she could do is  “look out the window, and hope he doesn’t have a seizure again.”

The ambulance arrived 29 minutes later. “When I opened the door, the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘someone has time to die,'” she said.

Gorenko later found out that the ambulance that had arrived was the second ambulance that had been dispatched. The first, an Embrun ambulance, had been only a short distance away when it was diverted to a higher-priority emergency in Ottawa. The second came from Bourget. “I was shocked,” said Gorenko. “Who made the decision that for the health and safety of Ottawa citizens, it’s more important for them to get the ambulances?”

Gorenko met with Russell Mayor Pierre Leroux as well as Chretien, who confirmed her story and said he agrees with her and supports her making a complaint to the province. Gorenko says she’s happy with how local officials have handled her complaint, but that she’s lost trust in the local ambulance service.

On February 18, her husband was at home alone with Benjamin when he had another seizure. This time, they decided not to call 911. Instead, they called a neighbor, who drove to CHEO while Benjamin and his father rode in the back seat. “Anything could happen,” Gorenko says. The couple lives about 25 minutes away from CHEO. “It’s a chance, it’s a risk…but we don’t have faith in the system.”