News-Sentinel Staff Writer Last updated: Wednesday, May 03, 2006 – 06:33:03 am PDT
A paramedic didn’t touch a Lodi woman before he pronounced her dead after she was struck by a train last week, according to a Lodi Fire Department report released Tuesday.
But Lillian Flaherty, 31, was actually still alive though that wasn’t determined until coroner’s deputies arrived nearly an hour later.
Flaherty was lying on the railroad tracks in downtown Lodi on April 24 when a freight train struck her and subsequently derailed when the engineer made an emergency stop.
The woman appeared to have “agonal respiration,” meaning dying breaths, when firefighters arrived at 11:23 p.m., Acting Fire Capt. Bradley Doell wrote in his report. An American Medical Response ambulance arrived at the same time, and when a paramedic learned that brain matter was showing, he said it was an “obvious sign of death,” Doell quoted him in the report.
Doell said, “Are you sure?” the paramedic said, “Yes,” and Doell said in his report that fire crews were released from the scene.
Yet because the train had derailed, firefighters remained on the scene to see if they were needed elsewhere, although no one else was injured.
Doell’s report goes on to say a police officer arrived on scene and the paramedic asked if police had searched the woman for identification. The officer said no one had touched Flaherty yet and the paramedic replied, “Then I won’t, either,” Doell wrote in his report.
Doell noticed that the woman still seemed to be having agonal respirations, along with muscle spasms.
San Joaquin County Coroner’s deputies arrived almost an hour after the accident, and they discovered that Flaherty was still alive, coroner’s spokesman Les Garcia said.
Flaherty was taken to Lodi Memorial Hospital, where a medical helicopter flew her to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. She died two days later.
A spokesman for AMR, which has 17,000 employees nationwide, was contacted before the fire report was released and he declined to comment on the status of paramedics who were at the scene.
Jason Sorrick, director of communications for the company’s western region, said federal patient privacy laws prevent him from speaking about Flaherty’s treatment at the scene. He said AMR cannot comment while the county’s investigation is ongoing.
The incident is now under investigation by the county’s Emergency Medical Services Department, and it will take about two weeks to obtain and read reports from all agencies involved, department administrator Dan Burch said Tuesday.
Burch said investigators will interview everyone involved and look at Flaherty’s patient records. Much of that work should be done in two weeks, he said, though the investigation will not be final until the Sacramento County Coroner’s report is done. Such reports can take several weeks or several months to complete.
“We’re going to find out what happened, see if anything went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Burch said.
Whether faster medical attention could have made a difference for Flaherty, who suffered massive head trauma, is a matter of speculation.
“I don’t know that the outcome would have been different,” Lodi Fire Chief Michael Pretz said.
Flaherty’s family members kept her on life support until last Wednesday so her organs could be donated.
Neither Pretz nor Burch had heard of such an incident happening previously in San Joaquin County, though Burch said he’s read of such cases in other parts of the country.
An Internet search revealed various Associated Press news accounts and subsequent message board discussions involving people who were pronounced dead and then later found to still be alive:
In January 2005, a North Carolina man was struck by a car and pronounced dead at the scene. His body was placed in a bag, taken to the morgue and slid into a refrigerated drawer. When a state trooper arrived to see the body and determine which direction he had been struck, the man was found to be alive.
In July 2004, paramedics pronounced an elderly San Francisco woman dead in her home, but were called back to the scene an hour later when coroner’s investigators arrived. She died the next morning at a hospital.
In May 2004, a 22-month-old Idaho boy fell into a canal, emergency workers tried to resuscitate him but he was pronounced dead. He was taken to a funeral home, where a worker noticed the boy’s chest moving.