Can you board a ferry in a medical emergency? A Quadra man in the middle of a heart attack had issues getting on the ferry to go to hospital in Campbell River and was told to call 911. File photo/Campbell River Mirror

Heart attack raises questions about boarding BC Ferries in health emergencies

Quadra Island man recovering after being airlifted to hospital in Victoria

A recent episode involving a Quadra Island man unable to board a ferry during a heart attack raises questions about what to do when there is water between you and a hospital.

David Alger, 62, was certain he needed urgent medical attention and was close to the Quathiaski Cove terminal, but he was not allowed to board for Campbell River. Instead, he was told to call for help.

A BC Ferries spokesperson has clarified their policy is to have people in medical distress contact a first responder rather than try to board a ferry.

“Anybody having a medical emergency should be calling 911,” said Deborah Marshall, BC Ferries’ executive director of public affairs. “Our personnel are not medically trained. We’ve got an occupational first-aid attendant just in case there’s any on-board incidents…. We are certainly not doctors, we’re not emergency responders.”

BC Ferries’ website has a page, “Safety Above All,” that states, “On an average day, BC Ferries’ crews may be required to rescue boaters in distress, attend a sudden heart-attack patient, or even try to prevent a suicide attempt.”

Marshall points out these are situations crew might face on board during a sailing and reiterates the need for people to call for assistance if they need help in advance of a trip.

RELATED STORY: Coast Guard fills in for ferry during medical evacuation of Quadra woman

Since the incident, Alger is recovering after eventually being airlifted to Victoria. He had been out biking on Nov. 29 when he started feeling something was wrong. Soon, he was experiencing chest pains and called his wife.

As a volunteer firefighter on Quadra, Alger has attended many first response situations and says he knows the time needed to get to the fire hall and retrieve equipment before attending a scene. As he and his wife were close to the ferry, they decided the noon sailing for Campbell River where she could drive to hospital was the fastest option. As well, his wife had forgotten her phone in the mayhem while he had stashed his in the back of the vehicle. They knew time to make ferry was running short.

“The ferry is going to leave without us, that was my big fear,” he said.

They were turned away because they had been told no one was on board that could help in the event of a medical emergency. Instead, they were told to call 911.

“It’s their policy that they don’t accept people in a medical emergency,” he said.

An ambulance was dispatched and had to be sent from Campbell River to Quadra to retrieve Alger and take him to hospital in Campbell River. In the meantime, a first responder arrived at around 12:10 or 12:15 p.m., Alger estimates, and he was given oxygen.

An ambulance arrived and brought him to the hospital where it was confirmed he was having a “major heart attack.” He was given medication to fight blood clots but went into cardiac arrest at which point he blacked out.

“I don’t remember anything until I regained consciousness,” he said.

His wife later told him she saw his eyes rolls back and his arms start flailing. He was soon flown to Victoria for a catheterization.

Alger credits the care he got at both hospitals but estimates the delay probably cost him about 40 extra minutes in getting to Campbell River.

Currently, he is recovering and feels well enough under the circumstances.

“I feel OK, but I don’t feel like I did before,” he said. “There’s no upside whatsoever to delaying treatment in a heart attack.”

He is upset with what he feels is misinformation from a ferry advisory committee member on a subsequent radio show about the situation. Nor was he impressed with a BC Ferries’ statement for another news story about their practice to let medical professionals make decisions about the transport of patients.

“It’s for the safety of the passenger,” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it’s so safe it almost killed me.”

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