EMS union prez describes harrowing week during storm

This is an excerpt from the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

In response to a newsletter from earlier this week, in which I referenced the blasé attitude expressed by some about last week’s disaster, Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, sent me an email detailing her experience as a medic during the storm.

Here are her words, verbatim:

Early Monday, power shut down for many Austinites. I jumped on an ambulance to start responding to emergency calls at around noon. While our shift started at 10 am, the ambulance had been t-boned by a vehicle that lost control. We had heard of crews holding over for over 4 hours working over 28 hours straight, with no rest.

Our first 911 call was someone who lost power. He was reliant on his oxygen concentrator to live. His oxygen levels started dropping without it. Our ambulance got stuck going up a hill that had snow deceptively covering ice. After two hours, one of ATCEMS’s 4x4s was able to extract us. By the time we reached the patient, his oxygen levels were half of what is normal. As we rode into the hospital, I tried every form of oxygen, trying to get his levels up to a place that would be safe (or safe for intubation if necessary).

Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie.

Our second patient was a bone cancer patient who couldn’t get his pain meds refilled due to the road conditions and he was in agonizing pain. Our third patient was on hospice and expected to die in a few days at home comfortably surrounded by loved ones. When his oxygen that was making him comfortable went out, he started making awful grunting sounds. It is not acceptable to die like that, in agony. We had no other options at the time than to take the person to the hospital to keep him comfortable, but not before we let his wife cry against his chest for 5 minutes, which was all we felt comfortable sparing at the time.

Then we ran an overdose, a young woman who was brought to her limit living in her freezing vehicle that had run out of gas. Then in the evening, the carbon monoxide calls started coming in. People choosing between freezing and burning furniture to keep their families warm causing carbon monoxide poisoning.

As the next days approached, we would see our infrastructure fall like dominos – a freeze meant no power. No power meant no water, no gas, no power or water meant different type of medical emergencies to follow. Our methadone clinics and dialysis clinics closed which meant people dying or critically ill while needing dialysis. Someone asked me for help to get dialysis and the response from the hospitals was, unless you’re close to dying, you’re not eligible for dialysis.

After my shift, I slept for the whole day. On Wednesday I started thinking about how to make sure EMS crews got food (many were stranded at work or asked to work 24 on 24 off).

While getting food to crews, I got a phone call. The person’s cousin had died and 911 said there were no resources to take the body away. He didn’t know what to do. I told him his options were to wait or put the body in his vehicle and drive it to a funeral home if it was safe. I cried in my car for an hour after that. I told someone to load their loved one’s body in a car and take it to a funeral home. And honestly, that wasn’t the best advice but that was the best I could do and I couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth in this city, in this country.

It was only Wednesday, and we would continue to see people resort to illicit drugs to stave off withdrawals from methadone clinics closing, people dying from electrolyte imbalances from lack of dialysis, our only Level 2 trauma hospital evacuating patients and closing the doors to EMS, our only Level 1 hospital almost on the same verge. It was and continues to be a humanitarian crisis and it is horrifying that there exists so much privilege that people can be blind to it.

This is an excerpt from the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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