Four calls, still no ambulance: a 90-minute ordeal

A man suffering a stroke and his friends pleaded for help

When Marco Phinnizee had a stroke in February, it took over 90 minutes and at least four increasingly panicked calls to 911 from Phinnizee and his friends to get an ambulance to his home in the city of South Fulton.

On the initial call by a friend at 12:06 p.m. on Feb. 16, Fulton County 911 operators were told Phinnizee was dizzy and his legs were numb. Records of the 911 calls obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show 911 operators labeled the call as a lower-level emergency, meaning other more urgent calls could take precedence.

The dispatcher told Phinnizee’s friend that help was on the way.

Back at the dispatch center, operators checked for ambulances but found none available in either south Fulton or the next-nearest EMS area in Atlanta.

On at least three calls that followed over 90 minutes, callers relayed increasingly frantic concern for his condition. In Phinnizee’s own call to 911, his speech was slurred and slow.

The harrowing incident illustrates the barriers to health care that already affect people in areas with below-average income levels and less private insurance, like southern Fulton County.

ExploreLoss of hospital services in South Fulton could have broad impact

With the impending closure of the emergency department at Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center South, in East Point, “unfortunately the South Fulton community will likely experience longer response times due to ambulances having to travel further,” said John Hanson, senior vice president of Grady Emergency Medical Services.

At some point, 911 operators upgraded Phinnizee’s emergency to a higher level, but according to Fulton records there were still no ambulances. According to Grady, within one minute of Phinnizee being upgraded, an ambulance responded.

In the final call, a friend drove to a nearby fire station himself while on the phone to the dispatcher and told the dispatcher that he could see on the road that in fact no emergency vehicles were on the way.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Fulton County runs the dispatch center, and Grady Emergency Medical Services provides the ambulances in the area where Phinnizee lives. Fulton told the AJC that emergency response is complex and it acted appropriately in the case. Grady said it has been working with Fulton County to try to improve EMS resources in the area.

Phinnizee, who was treated at Wellstar AMC South, is still recovering from the stroke at his home. He said the ambulance crew that picked him up said there was no time to get him to Grady Memorial Hospital, located a few miles further north.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Grady,” he said. “I’m a Grady baby. But for people who don’t have enough time, it takes a long time. That could be a life determining situation. It’s all about the timing.”