Some EMTs use position to molest patients, steal drugs
An Associated Press (AP) investigation has uncovered a disturbing pattern among some emergency medical providers, who are using their access to vulnerable patients to molest them en route to the hospital. Other paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) have been caught abusing drugs while working and sometimes stealing drugs by swapping out patients’ drugs with saline, thus endangering, rather than saving, patients’ lives.
For its investigation, the AP surveyed state agencies that oversee ambulance attendants and found that at least 129 attendants have been accused in the last 18 months of sex-related crimes, many committed in the back of ambulances. Danny Robbins, Ambulance Attendant Accused of Molesting Patients, Associated Press (Dec. 11, 2008), available at www.sfgate.com. Officials in 23 states reported receiving complaints, including molesting or raping patients in ambulances and off-duty crimes such as soliciting minors for sex and possessing child pornography. Although emergency medical services officials contend that this is an incredibly small percentage of attendants compared to the almost 900,000 paramedics and EMTs in the country, others argue that there is no way of knowing how many victims each attendant has molested because they have access to so many patients, there is usually only one attendant riding with a patient, and many victims do not come forward after an assault.
AAJ members Gregory Kafoury and Mark G. McDougal, both of Portland, Oregon, are currently representing five women who allege they were molested by EMT Lannie Haszard in the back of his ambulance. Herring v. Am. Med. Response N.W., Inc., No. 0712-14914 (Or., Multnomah Co. Cir. fourth amended complaint filed Dec. 30, 2008). Haszard was employed by American Medical Response, Incorporated (AMR), which first received a complaint about his actions in December 2006, after a 75-year-old patient told her son she had been touched inappropriately. The son called both the parent company and its Oregon subsidiary, which held a meeting with Haszard. After he denied the allegations, the company declined to take any action. Four months later, another woman told the police that Haszard molested her, and the police told AMR that he was under investigation. The company held another meeting with Haszard and a risk management employee and again decided to do nothing after Haszard denied any wrongdoing. They company also failed to notify the police that he had been accused before. “The women were simply being blown off,” says Kafoury.
Several months later, in December 2007, Haszard was the treating EMT for Royshekka Herring, a 28-year-old woman taken to the hospital after she lost consciousness at her home from internal bleeding as a result of a gastric disorder. While Herring was only semiconscious, Haszard allegedly began examining her abdominal area and then put his hands down her pants and touched her genitals. When they got to the hospital, Herring began screaming that she wanted Haszard out of the room because he had touched her. The nurses called security—not to remove Haszard, but because they doubted Herring’s sanity. After the police began questioning him, however, Haszard admitting to molesting Herring and several others. He is now serving a five-and-a-half year sentence for attempted sexual abuse.
“This guy had the perfect cover,” says Kafoury. “The women were confused at the time because [the touching] didn’t seem right, but he was also doing things he was supposed to do as he was molesting them.” Unfortunately, says Kafoury, all of the women are angry with themselves, in addition to their extreme emotional distress and posttraumatic stress disorder, because they feel as though they should have been able to stop him. But, Kafoury says, “they were strapped down and dependent, and sort of immobilized by shock and disbelief.”
While horrendous, molestation does not seem to be the most common danger posed to the public by EMTs and paramedics: An informal Internet search produces thousands of articles about emergency medicine service providers abusing drugs while working and even sometimes stealing drugs meant for patients and replacing those drugs with saline solutions. A review of California enforcement records for the years 2005 and 2006 performed by the Sacramento Bee newspaper revealed that 65 drug and alcohol cases were pursued against paramedics in those two years alone, while only eight were filed in 1999-2000. Andrew McIntosh, Special Report: Some Rescuers Pose Threat: Substance Abuse Rises among Paramedics in California, Putting the Public at Risk, Sacramento Bee (Jan. 28, 2007), available at www.sacbee.com. The newspaper noted, however, that the number of substance abusers could be significantly higher because in California, employers are not required to report paramedics who take medical leaves of absence for substance abuse treatment. Many others resign or retire before they can be reported. The problem is not unique to California; the paper reviewed records around the country and found recent cases of morphine theft in 17 other states. In most cases, the paper noted, the service providers had inadequate policies for drug storage, tracking, and security.
In one notable case, 26-year-old Mollie Yaley was scuba diving when she became separated from her partner and was found unconscious underwater. Other divers called 911, and police and firefighters arrived at the scene, but the paramedics did not arrive until about 15 minutes later. That morning, EMTs Alfonso Martorella and Bruce Faucett, both employed by AMR, had used heroin prior to attending to Yaley. Faucett was unable to start an IV in Yaley, and she had to be intubated—a less efficient way to administer medication. Her heart stopped as a result, and EMT protocol requires that in those situations, life support measures be continued until the patient is at the hospital. Additionally, when a person drowns in cold water, resuscitation measures can be effective even minutes later.
Nevertheless, Faucett discontinued life support measures and packed up his gear, saying “that’s it.” After police officers protested, Faucett called the hospital pretending he had not discontinuted efforts and seeking “permission,” which was denied because it was a cold water drowning. Although Yaley’s heart eventually restarted after she was warmed up, the prolonged lack of oxygen caused brain death, and she died after being removed from life support.
Shockingly, although Martorella and Faucett admitted using drugs and entered substance abuse rehabilitation, they remained employed by AMR long after the incident. Martorella was fired only after another positive drug test for cocaine, but remained certified as an EMT even after that. Yaley’s parents sued AMR, along with the county, alleging the paramedics acted in bad faith and were grossly negligent. The parties settled in November 2005 for $250,000, the maximum allowed for noneconomic damages in California. Yaley v. Am. Med. Response, Cal., Monterey Co. Super., No. M65359, Nov. 2005. The Yaleys were represented by AAJ member Brian P. Evans, of Walnut Creek, California.
Another employee of AMR in California, John Wilson, recently had his license suspended after the company discovered that he was stealing morphine and Versed from the ambulance, sometimes replacing the drugs with saline solutions and carefully doctoring the vials’ seals to conceal the theft. He also forged medication logs and admitted that his drug use was so prevalent that he had no idea how many vials he tampered with or whether any patients received the saline solution instead of the medications. In June 2008, he stopped the theft and sought treatment, but he was not fired by AMR until two months later, after he relapsed. In the Matter of the Emerg. Med. Technician-Paramedic License Held by: John Wilson, Cal., Emerg. Med. Servs. Auth., temporary suspension granted, Sept. 17, 2008.
Noting that “EMS practitioners, by virtue of their state licensure, certification, or national registration, have unsupervised, intimate, physical and emotional contact with patients at a time of maximum physical and emotional vulnerability, as well as unsupervised access to personal property,” the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians recommends that licensing agencies should deny applications from all individuals convicted of any crimes involving sexual abuse. Likewise, the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians urges a zero-tolerance policy on illicit drug use and wants all emergency medical services companies to proactively safeguard against drug theft and use.
But these national organizations do not have control over licensing, which is granted by individual states. The AP investigation revealed that only 22 states have policies strictly prohibiting sex offenders from working as EMTs. The other 28 states allow case-by-case evaluations. The federal government does not provide clear guidance: Although emergency medical services fall generally under the umbrella of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 12 federal agencies have control over some aspect of EMT procedures. Without control over licensing and background check requirements, however, the agencies cannot control who is ultimately given the power to treat patients.