Woman who died after waiting over an hour for ambulance is latest victim of NHS crisis

Monica Lewis.jpg
Wife and grandmother Monica Lewis, 57, died from a heart attack

after waiting over an hour for an ambulance

A 57-year-old woman died from a heart attack after having to wait more than an hour for an ambulance to arrive at her south London home.

Grandmother Monica Lewis, an epilepsy sufferer, was having a severe epileptic fit in the early hours of Friday morning when her partner, Harry Smith, 73, dialled 999.

Given that Ms Lewis lived just 10 minutes away from an A&E department, according to official guidelines, it should not have taken more than 19 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at her home. Yet, Ms Lewis was forced to wait just over an hour before paramedics reached her, by which point it was too late.

Two ambulances that where on the way to Ms Lewis’s Croydon home were diverted to ‘higher priority’ calls, leaving her screaming “I’m going to die” in her partners arms as the time passed and her fit continued.

Eventually the epileptic fit triggered the heart attack which caused Ms Lewis’s death, more than 1½ hours after the initial call for an ambulance was made.

  • Mr Smith called for an ambulance at 12.29am.

  • In the next 47 minutes two ambulances were diverted to other ‘higher priority’ cases as Mr Smith confirmed to the operator that Ms Lewis was still breathing.

  • 1.16am – The 999 operator upgrades Monica from a Red 2 (‘serious but not immediately life threatening’) case to Red 1 (life-threatening).

An ambulance is on its way but it is coming from Brixton, 8 miles away, rather than the local A&E department 1.5 miles from Monica’s home.

  • 1.30am – Monica dies before any paramedics reach her.

  • 1.39am – A fast response car arrives.

  • 2.00am (1½ hours after the initial 999 call) – An ambulance arrives.

Referring to the tragic incident, Simon Wigglesworth, deputy chief executive of the charity Epilepsy Action, said: “We find it shocking an ambulance could take so long to reach someone having status epilepticus, a known medical emergency.”

Ms Lewis’s loved ones are rightly frustrated with the inadequate response of the emergency service which they believe is directly to blame for Ms Lewis not being alive today.

The victim’s daughter, Gemma Senior, said that she was “disgusted and disappointed” with the emergency service’s treatment of her mother who, she pointed out, “only lived a ten-minute drive from hospital.” Ms Senior recalled: “The ambulance crew told me they had come from Brixton. I said, “What? Mayday Hospital [in Croydon] is only down the road!””

She added, “I’m so angry. The ambulance crews might as well not have come. I’m certain she was already dead when they arrived. […] It could all have ended differently had the ambulance taken 12 minutes and not over an hour.”

Ms Lewis’s partner has no doubt that if an ambulance had arrived in time, Monica would be alive today. Mr Smith, Monica’s partner of six years, said: “If the ambulance had got here in time, she would have survived. That’s a fact.” He continued, “I want them to know they are responsible for the death of my precious, beautiful woman, who I called my wife. […] We all have to die but she died a terrible death, she died in pain. She should not have died so young.”

He added, “Normally I’d never call the ambulance unless she had at least three seizures in a night, but this was different. It was so severe, and she was in so much pain. At one point Monica screamed in terror “I’m going to die!”

Recounting the horrific incident, Mr Smith said: “When they finally came in, she had stopped breathing. […] She was foaming at the mouth, with saliva and blood coming out, but she was not breathing.”

Ms Lewis was a mother of two and grandmother to seven children.

A spokeswoman for the London Ambulance Service offered their “sincere condolences” and apologised for the lengthy response time, saying: “We are very sorry that we were unable to send an ambulance response any sooner.”

Ms Lewis’s death on Friday is an all-too-clear reminder of the current crisis facing the NHS, in particular A&E departments. Her death coincided with the unveiling of a new NHS pilot scheme which will give ambulance teams more time to reach their patients. The pilot scheme is linked to the highly controversial suggestion that ambulance target response times could be more than doubled – from 8 minutes to 19 minutes – in London and South West England.

Currently London Ambulance Service has the slowest response times in the country and is failing, by far, to meet response time targets. Whilst NHS targets say that 75 per cent of Red 1 (classified as ‘life threatening’) 999 should receive an ambulance response within eight minutes, in London only 55% of calls currently receive an ambulance response within that time frame.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, told the House of Commons that the pilot scheme is a response to an "unprecedented increase in demand for ambulance services in the last two months."

Mr Hunt insists that extended response times will “improve the chances of survival for patients, especially those with the most serious conditions." He continued: “Giving call handlers very limited extra assessment time would ensure that ambulances are better deployed to where they are most needed and would allow a faster response time for those patients who really need it,” he said.

Labour MPs are not convinced that such “experiments” are worthwhile or indeed beneficial to patients.

Andy Burnham, Shadow Health Secretary, argued that the scheme should be carried out during a quieter period in summer. Mr Burnham said: "This is the worst winter for years in England's A&Es. It is not the time for experiments nor relaxing operational standards. This could mean patients waiting longer for ambulances.”

Tony Hughes, GMB regional officer for Ambulance service in London and East of England, has expressed his concern over the pilot scheme. "These pilots in London and the South West are ridiculous. They will only serve to bring worse outcomes for patients,” said Mr Hughes.

He added, “We will see people die more often that we see at the moment from conditions that can be treated if the right resource is got to them in good time."

All this debate comes as we approach the May elections, where the NHS is now judged to be the top issue that will be swaying voters. Nearly fifty per cent of the public say that the state of the NHS will determine which way they vote in May.

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