The children of a 72-year-old Parksville man say their father died on his kitchen floor while they were on hold with 911 for half an hour before an ambulance arrived.
Retired Mountie and lawyer Harry Charles Blakey died on Aug. 27, about 15 minutes into a 30-minute wait for an ambulance after 911 was called, said family.
It was supposed to be a happy occasion. Blakey, known as Chuck, and his three grown children and their families were gathering at his home in Parksville for the wedding of his son Kevin Blakey, 34, and Janna Hong, 32.
Now a death that would have been heartbreaking on its own has been ratcheted up to traumatic.
“Get the 911 recording — you’ll hear a family watch their father die on the kitchen floor,” said Kevin Blakey in an interview from Calgary, where the couple lives.
“Being put on hold and having to hear that [automated message loop in the background], it was like water dripping on your forehead — torture. It would have been easier if we didn’t try. It would have been less traumatic.”
Chuck was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer this year. Sad but pragmatic, he signed a Do Not Resuscitate order, paid for a plot in Moose Jaw to be interred near his parents, and applied for Medical Assistance In Dying in case it ever came to that.
His doctor said he would likely live until after Christmas. Despite the dire prognosis, he was active, working in his shop and visiting with friends. Just days prior to his death, he ran a community baseball tournament.
It was just after 8 p.m. when Kevin, an electrical engineer, and Janna, a registered nurse, were gathered with his mom, Nancy, and others in the kitchen and Chuck experienced chest pain, crumpled and fell into the arms of his future daughter-in-law.
A family friend called 911. Janna gave first aid. The 911 dispatcher, who does not typically have medical training, directed the call to B.C. Emergency Health Services and stayed on the line, waiting for the ambulance call taker to answer.
The family heard: “You have reached the B.C. Ambulance emergency line — a call taker will be with you shortly.” After a three-second gap, the recording played again. The minutes seemed like hours. Chuck, semi-conscious, gasped for air.
At 9 1/2 minutes, Kevin yelled into the phone “hurry the f--- up.” A voice on the other end said, in what Kevin described as a detached tone, that help was coming.
“So at that moment, I realized this guy has been listening to all the stuff that’s been going on in this kitchen, people losing their minds, my father dying, and us trying to rescue him,” said Kevin. “For him to sit there and be that nonchalant about it, it means this guy probably has to hear that 10 times a day or more.
“That was the best that could be done for us. And a couple of minutes later, my dad stopped breathing.”
It was 8:17 p.m. Kevin handed the phone off “because it didn’t matter anymore” and fixed his mind on his sisters Barbara and Janice, who would be there any moment with their families.
As a nurse at Foothills Hospital in Calgary, Hong is no stranger to death, but treating a family member without backup was different, she said.
Family members say they can’t get the incessantly looping automated on-hold message out of their minds — the soundtrack of a family tragedy.
Barbara Blakey, a photographer who also lives in Calgary, said her father “was a great citizen during his career and in his retirement.”
Chuck was an RCMP officer, lawyer for the securities commission in Calgary and avid volunteer — sitting on many boards, organizing community sports events, and providing legal and advocacy advice, she said.
She has lodged a formal complaint with the Patient Care Quality Office of the Provincial Health Services Authority and with Parksville-Qualicum NDP MLA Adam Walker.
People on Vancouver Island who call 911 need to know there’s a very real possibility someone will die waiting for an ambulance, she said.
“My father did not live in a remote area,” she said. “He lived five minutes from the main road in Parksville.
“A system that would allow such a thing to happen is a broken system.”
B.C. Emergency Health Services, in an email, offered condolences to family and friends. The ambulance service said it has been “put to the test this summer” but is making improvements and “will have more to say in the days ahead.”
On Friday, E-Comm 911, the emergency communications centre responsible for answering 99 per cent of B.C.’s 911 calls, posted a notice on social media asking people to be aware of increasing wait times for 911 calls being transferred to the ambulance service.
“If you dial 911 and hear a recording DO NOT hang up, stay on the line and your call will be answered as soon as possible,” says the Facebook post.
A B.C. Emergency Health Services employee who asked not to be named said the pressure of watching a board of stacked calls for help in a 12-hour shift is immense: “You have to desensitize if you think how insane it is.”
On Aug. 29 Kevin and Janna were married on Gabriola Island in a ceremony and reception that Chuck had meticulously helped plan for his son.
In room No. 8 of the Dragon’s Lodge, where Chuck had planned to stay, family laid out his beloved hockey jersey, baseball bat and ball.