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‘I am alive because of four people from the BC Ambulance Service’: Vernon senior

Doug Bigelow, 76, experienced a heart attack this past January

Story by BC Emergency Health Services

It was a Saturday afternoon, and Doug Bigelow was moving firewood on his farm in Vernon. That’s when the 76-year-old started experiencing chest pain.

“I’ve never had a heart attack before so I was dwelling in denial, thinking I could shower and change before making my way into town,” explains Doug. “But within minutes, I knew I was in trouble - the pain was becoming really tough.”

Doug’s wife, Kate, jumped into action and helped her husband into the passenger side of their truck. She planned on calling hospital staff to alert them they were on route, but soon realized she didn’t have their number handy. So, she dialed 9-1-1.

“I’m someone who panics easily, but as soon as the guy on the line answered, he told me ‘Don’t worry. We’ve got this,’” recalls Kate. “I felt like I was enveloped in support. He was so steady and caring.”

In the meantime, Doug’s condition had worsened. Rather than have the couple drive to the hospital, the call taker sent paramedics to meet the couple along the highway.

“As soon as we arrived at the meet-up point, we were met by the Advanced Life Support paramedic, followed by two other paramedics moments later,” said Doug. “Everybody gave us their names. The advanced life support paramedic had a calmness and confidence that was awfully reassuring. He said, ‘we’re going to take care of you. Don’t worry.’”

Fortunately for Doug, primary care paramedics in the Okanagan now have access to expanded cardiac monitoring in their ambulances as part of the Collaborative Heart Attack Management Program (CHAMP), a collaboration between BCEHS, Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), health-care partners in Interior Health, and several private foundations.

Launched in April 2021, the program equips and trains paramedics in the region to get crucial diagnostics of patients faster, allowing them to bypass the local hospital and take patients straight to advanced cardiac care in Kelowna.

“Seconds count when you’re dealing with a heart attack,” explains Don Hagen, an Advanced Life Support paramedic who treated Doug. “This program helped us get the patient the lifesaving care he needed the moment he arrived at the hospital.”

Doug underwent an angioplasty in hospital, a procedure used to open blocked coronary arteries. While he says he suffered significant damage from the heart attack, it could have been so much worse.

“I am alive because of four people from the BC Ambulance Service. If we did not have 9-1-1 on the line when we did, and the paramedics hadn’t met us when they did, I probably wouldn’t be alive today,” Doug said.

‘We work like detectives to finesse the medical information’

Doug Bigelow and his wife Kate Erickson at home on their Vernon farm. (Submitted photo)
Doug Bigelow and his wife Kate Erickson at home on their Vernon farm. (Submitted photo)

Gregory Vaal, BCEHS dispatcher. (BCEHS photo)

BCEHS receives an average of 56,000 cardiac-related calls each year, ranging from chest pain to heart problems to cardiac arrests. Call takers for 9-1-1 are the first point of contact for people needing immediate assistance. On the day of Doug’s heart attack, Gregory Vaal answered the call.

“We work like detectives to finesse the medical information we need to paint a clear picture of what has happened or is happening with the patient. As an ambulance 9-1-1 call taker, who is also an advanced care paramedic, I quickly realized that the patient was likely experiencing a heart attack,” explains Gregory. “I stayed on the phone with the caller until she made contact with our paramedics. It was so fulfilling to hear her say that the paramedics were already at the meet point when she arrived.”

BCEHS paramedic Jeremy Kroeker. (BCEHS photo)
BCEHS paramedic Jeremy Kroeker. (BCEHS photo)

Jeremy Kroeker, BCEHS paramedic. (BCEHS photo)

Those paramedics included Jeremy Kroeker and Andrew Mcdonald. As a 27-year veteran, Jeremy says helping patients is what paramedics do – day in and day out.

“We go to every call providing that level of care and compassion and sometimes we don’t recognize how important it is to patients,” says Jeremy. “Staying calm and providing reassurance can make the biggest difference.”

Patients like Doug know firsthand the difference highly-trained responders can make.

“I just admire the way they hold their composure and do their work with compassion. They would say ‘we’re just doing our jobs’ but even during the technical issues, they kept their calmness, composure and compassion. I am very grateful to them.”

When to call 9-1-1

Kate Erickson was wise to call 9-1-1 in this situation. Anyone experiencing chest pain should call 9-1-1 immediately rather than drive to the hospital or doctor’s office. Paramedics can provide these patients with immediate life-saving care that can increase their chances of survival.

If you are not experiencing a medical emergency, call 8-1-1 to speak with a registered nurse for confidential health information and advice, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

READ MORE: Paramedic with PTSD launches new mental health tool for first responders

READ MORE: Paramedics, dispatchers call for more resources as mental health issues spike


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