Most of us go about our days without giving much thought to the fragility of life. After all, we go along through life, some for decades at a time, some for their entire lives, without the kind of immediate health emergency that instantly reminds us of our mortality.
But if and when the day comes that we feel the icy hand of death brush against us, our minds race to the telephone, secure in the thought that a caring person who will direct emergency medical care to us is only a phone call away. Or at least, we’d like to think so…
Just a few days before New Years Eve in 2017, a young woman named Naomi wasn’t feeling well at all. The 22-year-old from Strasbourg, France was experiencing some kind of stomach ache like nothing she’d ever felt before.
At first, she just had a little bit of discomfort, nothing she couldn’t handle. But within just a few minutes the pain grew immensely, so intense that it doubled her over and took her breath away. Something inside Naomi was very wrong…
Life or Death
The pain was so severe that Naomi only knew one thing: if she didn’t get help soon, she was going to die. Unfortunately, she was home alone, which meant her only hope was to call for an ambulance.
At this point, even getting to the phone was a monumental task. Naomi was no longer able to stay upright from the pain and essentially crawled over to her phone. She dialed the number for Samu, Strasbourg’s ambulance service, and waited seconds that seemed like an eternity for the operator to pick up…
“Yes, hello?” said the operator. Naomi’s voice was barely a whisper as she replied “Hello… help me, ma’am.” When the operator asked her what was going on, she could only weakly reply “help me.” The operator, seemingly annoyed pressed Naomi, saynig “Well if you do not tell me what’s going on, I will hang up.”
There is one important thing to know about emergency services phone calls in France. In addition to a general emergency services number — 112 — that can be called for any kind of emergency, France also has a fragmented system of other emergency phone numbers that are used for specific problems. If a person calls 112 with a problem that’s not time sensitive, they are instructed to call one of the more specific numbers…
‘I’m Gonna Die’
But the problem here was that Naomi Musenga was in so much pain that all she could really say was that she was in so much pain. The operator, not picking up on the state Naomi was in simply told her to call a doctor. Desperate for the woman on the other end of the phone to understand, Naomi gave her assessment. “I’m gonna die,” she said.
In response, the operator said something you’d never expect to hear while in need of life-saving help. “Yes… you will die, certainly, one day, like everyone else,” she said. The operator’s musings on the inevitability of death were as shocking as they were callous…
It’s not that she wasn’t trying to help Naomi, though. The next words out of her mouth were to “call the SOS doctors,” France’s emergency medical service that sends a doctor directly to a house. But an SOS response is for non-immediate medical problems and it typically takes several hours for the doctor to arrive.
Naomi tried again and again to convey the seriousness of her situation, but could only say things like “Please help me” and “My stomach hurts a lot” in a barely audible voice. But over the course of the 3 minute call, the operator simply kept telling the wounded woman to call SOS. Eventually, the operator hung up on Naomi and made the call to SOS for her…
It took 5 hours for the doctor to get to Naomi and when he arrived and assessed her situation, he immediately called for an ambulance to get her to a hospital as quickly as possible. Once she was at the hospital, it became clear that her condition was even worse than the doctor had believed.
She was rushed to the intensive care unit after she suffered a stroke and while there, suffered 2 heart attacks. Despite the best efforts of the hospital staff, Naomi Musenga died of multiple organ failure apparently caused by massive hemorrhaging 6-and-a-half hours after she’d called emergency services…
It’s almost certain that the doctors would have had a better chance of saving Naomi’s life if an ambulance had gotten to her in minutes rather than hours. With the way she was treated, it would be easy to place the blame for her death entirely at the feet of the emergency services phone operator.
For her part the operator, who remains anonymous, expressed some regret at how she’d handled the call, saying “In the conditions… let’s say it was inappropriate,” she said. Still, she offered some defense, saying “we are constantly under pressure… I can be 2 or 3 hours hanging on my phone, I have no time to get up.”…
“There’s so much demand everywhere,” she added. “We hang up and we pick up.” On top of the heavy work rate, only around 10 to 20% of the calls they get are real emergencies, with the majority being people who are drunk, anxious, or just people who want someone to talk to. Under those circumstances, some legitimate calls can seem like “time-wasters.”
France’s emergency call operators “answer calls 12 consecutive hours a day,” said Jean-Claude Matry, head of the emergency service workers union. “When you hear ‘I have a stomach ache,’” said the operator’s lawyer, “the first reflex is to think that there is no absolute emergency and that one has to go and see their [doctor].”…
For her mishandling of the phone call, the operator was suspended indefinitely and the Strasbourg authorities opened an investigation for “failure to assist a person in danger.” But those measures weren’t enough to stop public outrage. In addition to calls for changes to the way emergency numbers work in France, numerous emergency services operators throughout the country received death threats.
The criticisms about the complexity of French emergency numbers has some merit. Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux admitted that most French people were more familiar with the American 911 number than their own long list of numbers. There are also legitimate grievances about the understaffing dispatchers, first responders, and medical staff…
It’s a shame that it took the death of Naomi Musenga to bring these problems to the forefront. Though nothing can bring her back, “we are waiting for justice to be done, to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” her father Policarpe said. “Whether it was bad will or dysfunctions, it is a serious error.”
Hearing the recording of the emergency call was “like hearing Naomi die again,” her sister Louange said. “Naomi was a great girl, strong and courageous. She wanted to go back to school. She was raising her little daughter alone. We don’t understand how she died in one day.”