“Is there anybody willing to help this lady and not let her die?”
That was the plea of a fire department dispatcher in Bakersfield, Calif., on Feb. 26 when she learned that the nurse on the other end of the line would not perform CPR on Lorraine Bayless, an 87-year-old resident of the Glenwood Gardens independent living facility.
The nurse said that no one at the facility was authorized to help Bayless, who had crumpled to the floor in a common room and was barely breathing.
Seven minutes after the call, paramedics arrived to take Bayless to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Both the dispatcher, who became rather angry and forceful, and the nurse, who said she was only following her facility’s rules, were later backed up by their respective employers.
You can listen to the 911 call here:
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The original story spread quickly via social media. The implication was that a cold, unfeeling professional had let a woman die because she was unwilling to take responsibility to save her. But the New York Times “New Old Age” blog lays out several reasons why there might be more to the story than appears on the surface:
- As an independent living facility, Glenwood Gardens may have had a strong interest in not allowing its employees to provide medical care to residents. Its state charter strictly forbids such care.
- Families with loved ones at the facility are told explicitly about its policies, and members of Bayless’ family immediately said they did not plan legal action against Glenwood Gardens.
- If the patient had a do-not-resuscitate order, such care may have contravened her wishes.
- Studies show that fewer than 10 percent of octogenarians – perhaps as few as 3 percent – survive CPR, so if Bayless was frail or in particularly poor health, the odds may have been against her survival.
Within days, the Times blog suggested that change might be in the offing:
Sometimes a tragedy leads to change, and that may happen in this case. Housing providers for the elderly have already begun re-evaluating their policies regarding CPR, making sure that they “communicate to staff the need to follow the orders of emergency response teams,” said Maribeth Bersani, senior vice president of public policy at the Assisted Living Federation of America, whose members also include a number of centers with independent living operations.
“We think policies need to be clearer,” she said. “And we’re looking now at whether independent living staff should be trained in CPR.”
If the nurse or the facility felt stymied by fear of legal action, they needn’t have worried. California law stipulates that anyone attempting to save a life with CPR would have legal protection as a “Good Samaritan.”
This fall, the California legislature went even further. It passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed, a new law that generally forbids “an employer from having a policy of prohibiting an employee from providing voluntary emergency medical services, including, but not limited to, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, in response to a medical emergency.”
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