Since 2010, the Code Blue Team at the Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque has refrained from responding to all medical events on its 93-acre campus, relying on 911 for many areas outside of its main hospital building. The official line is that the hospital’s Code Blue Team is experienced and equipped for cardiac and respiratory events, less so for trauma, and trauma emergencies are more likely to occur outside of the main hospital building.
Or, apparently, on ground floors.
It’s difficult to square the rationale given by the VA with the deaths of former Army staff sergeant Michael Wayne Langston and Vietnam veteran Jim Garcia.
In 2013, Langston waited five minutes for paramedics to arrive in the VA parking lot after someone called 911 and was pronounced dead of sepsis in the VA emergency room – about 320 feet from where his van was parked.
In June, Garcia waited about 11 minutes for paramedics to arrive at the VA cafeteria; after being worked on for 20 minutes they took him the 800 feet to the ER, where he died of an apparent heart attack.
Neither medical incident seems to qualify as trauma in the traditional sense – a car wreck, a gunshot, a fall – and both men required resuscitation – something more likely to happen to the older, sicker population that frequents a veteran’s medical center.
It’s also hard to square VA policy with the 2012 case of an unidentified veteran who had to wait an hour for a city emergency medical service, or EMS, unit to find the VA residential treatment program. Interestingly enough, the Code Blue team would have responded had the vet been upstairs in the second-floor inpatient psychiatry unit, and the building is just south of the cafeteria.
In a further development you can’t make up, when EMS paramedics arrived, they took the patient, who survived, to the VA emergency department “via wheelchair,” a treatment even non-medical personnel are qualified to do.
After Garcia’s death, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced “we’re going to take a look at this, soup to nuts. I want to know that when something like this happens on a campus, I want to be able to look the family in the eye and say we did everything we could do to save your loved one’s life.”
Of course the VA can’t have an unlimited Code Blue response area, and it must find a way to keep its equipment secure yet available while continuing to work with other medical professionals as situations dictate.
Yet in light of these three cases, revising the Code Blue policy with an emphasis on its campus and clientele rather than a bureaucratic edict would be a good place for Gibson’s successor, Robert McDonald, to start.
If he also really wants to look veterans’ families in the eye.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.