Who you gonna call when you need an ambulance?

This commentary was first published by the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on November 1 2014.

It is mindboggling to me that New Brunswick taxpayers frequently cannot get service in their official language and there’s no outrage by politicians, no shame, no change.

On the other hand, and in the spirit of fairness, I do acknowledge everyone is able to pay their taxes in their language. That is not lost on me.

But call an ambulance or get health services in your language? Don’t count on it.

Of all things, emergency services should be bilingual. In times of panic, who can even remember how to yell for help in another language, let alone describe symptoms?

In New Brunswick, no one should even have to, if they speak one of the official languages.

The owner of a daycare called 911 when a child was having difficulty breathing. The three ambulance attendants who responded were unilingual in a language other than hers and the child’s. The owner relied on her teenage son to act as an interpreter.

A clinic called 911 for an immediate transfer to a hospital of a woman who had gone there. The two ambulance attendants who arrived could not communicate with the patient or her spouse.

A man felt discomfort while at a restaurant and an ambulance was called. None of the three ambulance attendants could speak the language of the patient and his family.

A woman dialled 911 while her brother was having a hypoglycemic attack. The two ambulance workers who arrived were unilingual in the language that the patient does not speak.

A woman received a call in the night from her sister who said she could hardly breathe. She called for an ambulance and raced to her sister’s home. She was prevented from going to her sister’s side. A firefighter was acting as interpreter, since no ambulance attendant could speak the patient’s language. It was noted that the firefighter, not being a real interpreter, was unable to translate certain terms.

A man found his wife on the kitchen floor, called 911 and was soon met by four firemen and two unilingual ambulance attendants who started work on her. An attendant asked him a question, which he did not understand. Asked repeatedly the same unintelligible question with increasing urgency, with precious seconds passing, the husband says “Yes!”. The 56-year old woman is transported to hospital and dies. The husband, in shock, accosts the attendant to ask, “What did you ask me earlier?” Not important now, was the answer. A nurse comes to calm the situation and tells him the question was whether his wife left instructions that she should not be resuscitated. The widower believes she could not have been resuscitated, which the autopsy confirmed, but says New Brunswick is playing with lives.

Just a few incidents of the last five years. The last one is still under investigation but the others have been confirmed.

Does anyone not survive the inadequate communication capacity of Ambulance NB? If you don’t have someone with you when you call an ambulance, who knows?

This problem worsened after the creation in 2007 of Ambulance NB, the company which has a 10-year contract with the province. To their credit, this year, three years before the end of its contract, Ambulance NB has realized that New Brunswick has been bilingual since 1969, and they’ve promised to try to do better, honest. In their defence, Ambulance NB grumbles that it reminds its staff regularly to offer services in both languages, but well, you know how help is.

The Commissioner of Official Languages, who has written six reports on Ambulance NB, has said its managers are the ones who, seven years into a contract, are still unable to fulfill its obligations. Ambulance NB doesn’t even know the linguistic capacity of its staff, hasn’t established what is the required level of linguistic capacity, and does not specify linguistic capacity among skills in its employment ads.

The union says staff can communicate in other ways than language with patients. So, citizens who speak the employees’ language get the full service, and those who don’t get a game of charade and a fast ride?

The reason why Ambulance NB should provide bilingual service is because citizens call for an ambulance. Citizens trump companies. It’s the law. And, it’s life and death.

It’s not exactly true that there is no reaction to this situation. One case I cite has launched a lawsuit and the provincial government is fighting it. Is that the best use of our money and time – arguing against having to give taxpayers ambulance services?

Meanwhile, someone should also get an injunction against anyone calling this a bilingual province.


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