One paramedic fired, three others disciplined for failing to treat stroke victim who later died

Nicole Benhamou, left, says she asked first responders to transport her sick daughter Crystle Galloway, right, to the hospital. They say Benhamou wanted to drive Galloway herself. Galloway later died from a stroke. [From Facebook, courtesy of Nicole Benhamou]
Nicole Benhamou, left, says she asked first responders to transport her sick daughter Crystle Galloway, right, to the hospital. They say Benhamou wanted to drive Galloway herself. Galloway later died from a stroke. [From Facebook, courtesy of Nicole Benhamou]
Published September 26 2018
Updated September 27 2018

TAMPA – A Hillsborough County Fire Rescue paramedic was fired and three others suspended without pay because of their failure to transport or even check the vital signs of a 30-year-old woman who showed stroke symptoms days after she underwent a Caesarian section.

Crystle Galloway's mother called 911 for help when her daughter became unresponsive July 4, but the responding fire medics only helped Galloway into her mother's car so she could be driven to a Temple Terrace emergency room operated by Brandon Regional Hospital — a facility unequipped to treat stroke patients.

After a CT scan showed bleeding in her brain, staff called for a helicopter to fly Galloway across town to Tampa General Hospital, where she slipped into a coma. She died five days later.

After a 10-week investigation into the case, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill announced Wednesday that all four medics will face disciplinary action.

"To the family, I do sincerely apologize and give my heartfelt apologies for our lack of care and service," Merrill said in a news conference. "I hope, and I had hoped, that these four fire medics would have been more forthcoming and owned this. At some point I think it would be good for them to apologize themselves instead of me.''

Lt. John "Mike" Morris, 36, who has worked with the department six years, was fired for his failure to provide adequate care that night. Acting Lt. Cortney Barton will serve a 30-day suspension without pay and is banned from serving in an acting lieutenant capacity for one year, after which she must retrain before taking any supervisory position.

Fire Medic Justin Sweeney has been demoted to Firefighter/EMT. He and fire medic Andrew J. Martin were also suspended for 30 days without pay.

"Other than Martin, none of the others had a shred of remorse, showed a shred of regret, had a second thought about their actions," Merrill said. "Morris in particular, though, was extremely arrogant. In fact, he said he would do everything again in the same way and that he can tell just by looking at a patient what they need. I think that's horrendous and so that weighed heavily in my decision to terminate him."

But the firefighters union say the paramedics did nothing wrong and that Merrill has made the county legally liable for Galloway's death. Travis Horn, a spokesman for International Association of Firefighters Local 2294, said paramedics cannot force a patient to submit to an examination or be taken to a hospital.

"They're out there protecting us and running back to back calls understaffed and mismanaged, and we're going to throw them under the bus because this young woman's mom claims they did not want to transport her," Horn said.

Records show Galloway's mother, Nicole Black, called 911 at about 3 a.m. and said her daughter had passed out and was drooling. Dispatchers coded the call as a possible stroke before sending paramedics to Galloway's home, and when the four fire medics arrived they learned the woman also "had a C-section the other day."

In written statements, all four fire medics told investigators that Sheriff's deputies Jacob Lamb and Michael Black had already spoken with Black about driving her daughter to the hospital before they arrived at her three-story apartment.

A separate investigation by the Sheriff's Office into the conduct of deputies Lamb and Michael Black cleared both of any wrong doing, records show.

The medics helped Galloway get down the stairs, but did not examine her or record her vital signs, a failure described in a county investigation as "gross neglect of duty." Checking vital signs is required even for incidents in which first responders are only asked to lift someone, according to the fire department's standing orders.

The medics also falsified case documents and neglected to have Galloway or her mother sign an informed consent form before they declined transportation to the hospital, Merrill said.

The investigation began after Black later complained that even after she spent more than 10 minutes begging the paramedics to transport her daughter to a hospital three blocks away, they refused, saying she couldn't afford the $600 ambulance ride.

Merrill said Wednesday that his investigation found no evidence the medics tried to dissuade either Galloway or her mother from being transported to the hospital, nor did it find evidence their inaction that night was racially motivated.

The four now have 30 days to take the case to arbitration, according to their union contract.

"I cannot trust these individuals to work under my medical license," Michael Lozano, the Fire Rescue medical director, wrote in a statement included in the investigation. "I feel they do not meet the minimum standards set by myself and the department."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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