Scrutiny of St John WA resourcing in Geraldton continues after woman dies waiting for care

Caitlyn Rintoul, Josh Zimmerman & Phoebe PinGeraldton Guardian
St John chief executive Michelle Fyfe.
Camera IconSt John chief executive Michelle Fyfe. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

About 20 per cent of ambulances in Geraldton take longer than 15 minutes to respond to emergency calls, St John WA’s boss has admitted in the wake of a local grandmother dying of a heart attack while waiting for paramedics.

Resourcing of the Geraldton depot is in the spotlight after the woman waited for more than 30 minutes for an ambulance last week.

The incident occurred on the same day a woman in her 70s suffered a suspected cardiac arrest and passed away at Busselton Regional Hospital after a 3½-hour wait for treatment.

St John chief executive Michelle Fyfe this week revealed only 79.5 per cent of priority case key performance indicators were met by Geraldton St John crews in March due to rising demand, which she said had jumped 20 per cent in the last five years.

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She also said March had been the busiest month on record for Geraldton crews.

The St John of God Geraldton sub-centre in Wonthella.
Camera IconThe St John of God Geraldton sub-centre in Wonthella. Credit: Geraldton Guardian

Ms Fyfe said Geraldton was a depot she had “advocated for in recent times”, but her leadership has come under fire after a staff survey conducted late last year revealed nearly 80 per cent of St John WA personnel say there have been no improvements to the organisation since Ms Fyfe took the reins in early 2018.

Three-quarters of those surveyed believe the organisation does not view ambulance services as the most critical part of its operations, and nearly two-thirds believe St John lacks ethics and does nothing to prevent bullying and abusive behaviours within the not-for-profit.

The Health Minister said the WA Government had put an additional $20 million into country paramedics since 2020 — and had committed $30m on top of that for even more regional ambos ahead of the 2021 election.

Asked whether St John had requested additional resources for Geraldton, WA Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said: “Not specifically.”

“They’ve raised Geraldton as an area of increasing pressure and if we were to increase country ambulance resources, they’d certainly like to see it in Geraldton — as would I,” she said.

She said the fact more career paramedics hadn’t been placed in Geraldton to cope with increasing demand was “a matter for St John”.

Speaking after the Geraldton woman’s death, a relative said the grandmother had been having difficulty breathing but was alert for about 20 minutes after the emergency call was made last week.

She said another family member who called the ambulance rang three times to say the grandmother was struggling for air and then spent 10 minutes performing CPR once she stopped breathing.

“(St John) took 32 minutes to get there when they knew at all times it was respiratory distress and getting worse with each call,” the woman said.

“(The person who called triple-0) is traumatised by these events, (the grandmother) was alert for approximately 20 minutes waiting for the ambulance until she stopped breathing. She had no chest pain. She still drove her own car, lived alone and cooked her own meals.”

File image. Picture: Gavin Box The Geraldton Guardian
Camera IconSt John Ambulance WA outside the Geraldton emergency department. Credit: Gavin Box/The Geraldton Guardian

St John’s logs record a “welfare check” was completed at 2.44pm before a call back from the scene one minute later because the victim was having “increased difficulty breathing”. The final entry notes the call-out became a “dual response” at 2.51pm, and that the country manager contacted the hospital crew who completed their transfer of care and departed at 2.55pm.

That transfer of care took 33 minutes — which Ms Fyfe said was in line with the 30-minute target set by public hospitals.

It was later revealed St John knocked back an overtime request from two off-duty paramedics who said they were available to immediately attempt to save the Geraldton grandmother. St John instead opted to wait for a crew tied up transferring a patient into the care of Geraldton Regional Hospital.

Ms Fyfe has denied budgetary concerns played a role in that decision but a “clinical incident review” has been launched to determine whether the case was appropriately handled.

Shadow minister for emergency services Martin Aldridge said these reviews should be “normalised” as a way to improve emergency service delivery, instead of being seen as a “witch-hunt” in an attempt to cast blame.

“Often these decisions are made in the heat of the moment with very little time and information, but with the best of intentions,” he said.

“I am not trying to defend what happened but obviously it shows more work needs to be done to build capacity in our ambulance service, not just in Geraldton but Statewide.

“We run the cheapest ambulance service in Australia and I think for what St John do for the money that they get, they do a remarkable job.”

Martin Aldridge.
Camera IconMartin Aldridge Credit: Stephen Heath/Stephen Heath Photography

He suggested the funding model for WA’s ambulance service could be reviewed to ensure regional depots were appropriately resourced to meet demand.

“We all pay an emergency services levy for fire and SES and marine search and rescue services, and (St John Ambulance) is the only emergency service that isn’t funded through the emergency services levy,” he said.

“Maybe that is something we could look at as a State to make sure we have a well-equipped ambulance service”

He also said the 40-year-old Geraldton depot was in need of an upgrade, and was “no longer fit for purpose”.

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