PHOENIX — A Valley widower is blaming his wife’s death, in part, on the Phoenix Fire Department because firefighter-paramedics failed to detect she was having a heart attack and did not take her to the hospital in an ambulance.
Bruce Sandberg filed a notice of claim against the city in June, nearly six months after 53-year-old Francesca’s death.
The ABC15 Investigators have been looking into several cases where Valley residents complained paramedics either never provided a requested ambulance or talked the patients out of going to the hospital. The patients later realized they had been in a life-or-death situation and needed immediate care. Some died.
Bruce and Francesca Sandberg had 13 grandchildren in their blended family.
“They called her Nana,” Bruce said. “She was the rock for our family. She was the glue.”
Everything came unglued last New Year's Eve.
Francesca, a retired school principal, had been sick with COVID-19 for weeks, and she took a turn for the worse that morning.
Bruce called 911.
“Shortness of breath from her heart pounding,” Bruce told the 911 dispatcher. “She has said, ‘Please call the ambulance for me.’”
“They're coming; they're coming,” the 911 dispatcher said.
Francesca never got that ambulance. Instead, Fire Engine 50 raced to their house.
“I trusted these guys. I believed him. I trusted them. Big mistake,” Bruce said.
Francesca was suffering from heart problems that would take her life. However, the captain and firefighters who evaluated her concluded she was like every other COVID-19 patient and did not need to go by ambulance, according to an internal fire department investigation.
The investigation also pointed out discrepancies in the firefighters' incident report and raised questions about whether the firefighters performed the appropriate tests.
“There was no EKG on her or anything,” Bruce said.
Bruce said he realized, if he wanted to get his wife to the hospital, he'd have to do it himself.
“At that point. I was going to become proactive no matter what they said or did because they weren't moving,” Bruce said.
The firefighters told investigators they helped Francesca walk to Bruce's truck, and Bruce said it took him nearly 10 minutes to drive to Honor Health Deer Valley Medical Center.
“The last thing she said to me was, 'Are we there yet? Honey? Are we there yet?'” Bruce recalled.
Bruce put the truck in park and grabbed a wheelchair.
“Her eyes were glassed over, and I knew,” Bruce said. “I went, 'Oh my God! Oh, no!' And I just went primal.” His wife, the love of his life, was pronounced dead about 40 minutes later.
A hospital worker familiar with the circumstances complained to the Phoenix Fire Department. The Department concluded its investigation in March. After reviewing the report. Bruce decided to file a notice of claim, the precursor to a lawsuit, against the city of Phoenix for wrongful death.
The ABC15 Investigators heard similar stories where patients and their families who called 911 claimed firefighter-paramedics talked them out of taking an ambulance to the hospital when they were really in life-or-death situations.
“They told me, it probably was, indeed, just food poisoning, and there was nothing the hospital could do for me,” Phoenix resident Dawn Gilpin testified at a state House committee meeting in February.
After the paramedics left, Gilpin said her friend Dr. Amish Shah, who is also a state legislator, drove her to the emergency room himself.
Gilpin said she went into emergency surgery and doctors “removed about two and a half feet of dead intestinal tissue from a bowel obstruction.”
Shah sponsored House Bill 2431, which bars paramedics from diagnosing patients and bans them from counseling a patient to decline emergency medical services transportation.
“Offering resistance to transport? That is just simply not acceptable,” said Rep. Shah, a Phoenix Democrat.
Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona President Bryan Jeffries testified against the bill.
“If we were to send them all to the emergency room, then our hospitals would just be completely overrun,” Jeffries told ABC15.
Jeffries said he often goes on 911 calls where someone does not need emergency care and may be best served by a family physician or urgent care facility.
When ABC15 asked Jeffries about allegations that some paramedics have improperly failed to transport by ambulance, he said, “That never happens. If somebody wants to go to the hospital, we are obligated to take them to the hospital without question.”
Phoenix Fire Department officials rejected our request for an on-camera interview, but the department did respond to several written questions about policies, saying "our procedures dictate that we transport any customer to the hospital who requests transport via ambulance."
Bruce did ask for the ambulance on a 911 call. He told ABC15 and investigators that he asked about the ambulance again after the firefighters got to his house. In the investigative report, the firefighters said they did not recall being asked.
“You should only have to ask once,” Bruce told ABC15.
The fire department's internal investigation found Captain Chris Stelzer and Firefighter Jared Peterson were in violation of patient care and consent policies. In part, the fire crew did not get Sandberg to sign a form that’s required if a patient refuses an ambulance.
As for whether the fire crew “denied” an ambulance, the investigator said he was unable to establish enough evidence to prove that allegation.
“The whole point why I'm sitting here today is because other people may become victim to the same thing,” Bruce said.
Six months after Francesca's deadly heart attack, Bruce asks whether she would be alive today if she had received medical care in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
“It was heartbreaking that there could have been a chance that she could have survived,” Bruce said.
Phoenix fire officials refused to say whether any members of the fire crew were disciplined for what happened with Francesca.
Friday, the department gave ABC15 a draft of a memo about implementing policies to comply with Dr. Shah's ambulance bill, which was signed into law last month.
The memo mentioned current and future responsibilities for paramedics including explaining to patients the risks of refusing an ambulance, not giving a medical opinion or diagnosis, and obtaining medical direction in high-risk refusal situations.