Hillsborough will reopen review of four medics facing discipline in death of stroke patient

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 July 31 2018
Updated July 31 2018

TAMPA — Hillsborough County will reopen its review of four paramedics facing discipline in the case of a stroke patient who died, saying it needs to know more about why the medics decided not to transport her during an emergency call.

County Administrator Mike Merrill announced the decision after the paramedics gave statements during closed hearings into the matter Tuesday at County Center. No questions were allowed during the hearing, a county spokeswoman said, and only the medics were allowed to speak.

"The additional review will allow us to ascertain the underlying reasons for the fire medics’ judgments and decisions," Merrill said in a news release, "as well as to determine any other contributing factors in this matter."

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The leader of the local union representing the firefighters blasted Merrill after the hearings, complaining that he moved too soon to discipline them.

"Today is the first time my folks could tell their side of the story," said Derrik Ryan, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2294. "My guys are now fearful of running street calls because of what’s being threatened (against) them."

An estimated 200 fire medics, who turned out at County Center to show their support for their colleagues, applauded Ryan’s statement.

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But county staff say Merrill followed state statutes when he suspended the four medics with pay on July 20.

The decision came after the county conducted its own internal investigation into how the medics responded to a July 4 call from the mother of Crystle Galloway, who was found passed out and drooling in her home. Each medic provided a written account of their actions to investigators.

The medics, who were told the 30-year-old woman had given birth by Cesarean section six days earlier, carried Galloway down some stairs but never examined her, the review found. She was taken to the hospital by her mother and died five days later.

County staff only learned of her death when Galloway’s mother, Nicole Black, complained that the medics and Hillsborough County deputies told her that her daughter couldn’t afford a $600 ambulance ride to the hospital. Black said in an interview last week that they also suggested her daughter had been drinking.

Union President Ryan told the Tampa Bay Times last week that the county was trying to fire the four medics. Ryan acknowledged that the medics may have erred by taking the word of deputies already on the scene, who had told them the mother just needed help getting her daughter loaded into her car for a ride to the hospital.

But Tuesday, Ryan reiterated his defense of the four medics.

"The accusations against my four members are crazy," Ryan said, insisting "we never nor would we ever" decline to take someone to the hospital or try to talk them out of it, talk about money in connection with a transport, nor consider a patient’s skin color."

Galloway and her mother are black.

Merrill likened any debate over those claims to "arguing about the deck chairs on the Titanic," saying they aren’t the real issue.

In a news conference after Tuesday’s hearings, Merrill said the county has no reason to believe race was a factor in the medics actions. The investigation is a narrow one, he said, focusing on three policy violations by the medics: that they failed to check Galloway’s vital signs, failed to obtain her signature declining transportation, and falsified documentation.

"There’s really no inconsistency in terms of what happened, but the problem is I still don’t understand why it happened," Merrill said.

The four suspended employees are Lt. John "Mike" Morris, 36, who has worked with the department six years; Fire Medic Justin Sweeney, 36, a five-year department employee; Fire Medic Andrew J. Martin, 28, a five-year department employee; and acting Lt. Cortney Barton, 38, a nine-year department employee.

County officials will spend the next few weeks interviewing the medics and Black, asking their questions in accordance with state laws, Merrill said.

Staff will also review statistics for the department’s responses to calls for service "to make sure there aren’t any other instances like this," he said.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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