911 Call Raises Questions for Would-Be Good Samaritans
An elderly woman in California died last week after a nurse refused to perform CPR in an emergency. Although the woman's family says she wanted to die naturally without any kind of life-prolonging intervention, the news has caused a firestorm of controversy.
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They deal with this every single day.
"These are not unusual calls, with people collapsed," said John Merklinger, Rochester Emergency Dispatch Director. "In fact, they're a fairly common call."
But what happened last week in California, on one of those "common" 911 calls, baffles Rochester emergency dispatchers.
Dispatcher: "We need to get CPR started. That's not enough. Okay?"
Caller: "Yeah, we can't do CPR at this facility."
Dispatcher: "Okay, then hand the phone to a passerby. If you can't do it, hand the phone to the passerby. I'll have her do it. Or if you've got any citizens there, I'll have them do it."
"I think what you're hearing is the 911 operator's frustration coming through, because I think in all likelihood she feels this patient could be helped, and no one's willing to help," Merklinger said.
Lorraine Bayless, 87, died shortly after collapsing at her senior living home. A nurse on the phone with 911 at the time refused to perform CPR, saying her company would not allow it.
Dispatcher: "Are just going to wait and we're going to let this lady die?"
Caller: "Well, that's why we're calling 911."
We let Rochester emergency dispatch director John Merklinger listen to that recording.
"I think our society as a whole worries too much about liability today. That's why we have this 'Good Samaritan Law,' so that you can try to help others and it should protect you."
Legal analyst Bob Brenna discussed the specifics of New York's own Good Samaritan Law.
Dispatcher: "As a human being, is there anyone there who is willing to help this woman?"
Caller: "Not at this time."
"In New York State, the Good Samaritan Law exists to allow people who are trained professionally, to be able to come to the aid of somebody who is in a crisis, without fear that they might be sued," Brenna said.
So at least in New York State, that nurse on the phone would actually be more safe in trying to help, rather than refusing CPR.
"There can be liability for failure to act, because someone asserted control over the situation and then failed to do anything to help the person," said Brenna.
So what should you do in an emergency?
"You know, you've got to decide what your personal morals and values are, and what you're willing to do to help," Merklinger said.
"Some of the rumors that no matter what they do will lead them to be subject to a lawsuit are just overblown, in our state and in many other states," Brenna said.
We reached out to local senior care facilities to find out their policy on CPR. Episcopal SeniorLife told us: "Our policy regarding CPR is to provide it as indicated by the residents' advanced directives... Resuscitation measures must be instituted as soon as cardiac arrest has been diagnosed and a competent CPR person is present." We are still waiting to hear from other local providers.