Left for Dead: Paramedic Misstep

February 21st, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Did a bad decision by EMTs at the scene of an accident result in unnecessary death?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

The golden hour strikes without warning.

The golden hour is the critical 60 minutes from the moment a life-threatening injury occurs to when the human body—if left untreated--starts shutting down on a trajectory toward death. Paramedics and other emergency responders encounter it as a matter of course.

The golden hour started ticking for a 23 year old college student named Erica Smith at 4AM on a freezing Sunday along a Texas highway when a drunk driver plowed head-on into the car in which she was a passenger.

Believing that Smith was dead, fire department paramedics covered her with a tarp and left her in the wreckage. In fact, she was alive, in critical condition with a severe head injury. As the golden hour slipped away, a policeman is reported to have twice told the paramedics that the young woman was still breathing, but they did nothing.

Almost two hours later, a medical examiner arrived to examine Smith’s body and saw that she was still alive. She was finally taken to a hospital. Her boyfriend dropped to one knee by her bedside and asked the non-responsive woman to marry him. Smith’s mother answered “yes” for her daughter, who soon died—34 hours after the crash.

It is not known if prompt medical treatment could have saved Smith’s life. But two hours after she died, the fire chief held a news conference and defended the paramedics’ actions, saying the cold weather could have affected Smith’s vital signs.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” the chief said. “We weren’t driving the vehicle that hit the car.”

Tell us what you think about the fire chief’s refusal to accept responsibility. Where should the buck stop—with the chief? The paramedics? The drunk driver?