Déjà Vu

Seconds after Ricardo Vasquez went into his first seizure, bystanders pulled out their cell phones and called 911. The skinny 37-year-old had been attending an AIDS awareness rally on the Southern Methodist University campus, so the emergency calls summoned a University Park ambulance.

When the two paramedics arrived, Vasquez was sprawled out on the steps of Hyer Hall, shaking, stiffened, his eyes rolled back, spit frothing from his mouth. As the two fire department medics approached, someone informed them that Vasquez has full-blown AIDS, so they should avoid exposing themselves to his blood and saliva.

Instead of merely taking precautions, the techs "didn't want to touch him...they never did," says Sheila Dolezal, human resources director for AIDS Services of Dallas, who was at Vasquez's side, holding his head, throughout the incident. Adds David Parks, the organization's development director, "They acted like they did not either want to help this man or did not care." Sharon Feigenbaum, yet another AIDS Services employee who was there, concluded, "They were clearly not going to touch the man."

Dolezal, Parks, Feigenbaum and five other AIDS Services staffers say the medics appeared so reluctant to move in and help Vasquez that they are convinced that they were biased because Vasquez had AIDS, or because he was an unhealthy-looking Hispanic man.

The eight staffers gave sworn statements the day after the September 30 incident describing the technicians' actions as biased, incompetent or uncaring--statements that have now formed the basis of a formal complaint to University Park.

"It amazes me this could happen in 2001," says Don Maison, president of AIDS Services, a well-respected, well-funded group that provides housing and support for those with HIV and AIDS. "This was callous."

Maison, who is also a lawyer, took the statements of his staff members, sent them to University Park officials and asked for "a thorough examination of the response of your emergency medical personnel." In a letter, he asked the well-to-do suburb to take "steps to eliminate such unprofessional behavior in the future."

David Ledbetter, the city's fire chief, said last week he is conducting an internal review and conceded that there were problems with the city's response. "Sometimes when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong, and that may have been the case here," Ledbetter says.

He says he has found problems with the paramedics' training and deficiencies with supplies.

Ledbetter declined to identify the paramedics and would not discuss whether he thought prejudice or bias might have played a role in the call. He denied at least one common thread running through the eight statements: that it didn't look as if the paramedics had any intention of taking Vasquez to the hospital until the AIDS Services staffers all but ordered them to do so. "They intended all along to transport him," Ledbetter says.

Responding to AIDS Services in a letter he delivered personally last week, Ledbetter said, "It is my responsibility to ensure professionalism and courtesy is extended to each of our customers." He said the two paramedics would attend additional training in handling seizures and that "all personnel will be given cultural diversity classes. I will solicit training that will re-educate each of us on HIV-sensitive issues."

Vasquez, who lives in a pleasant AIDS Services housing complex in Oak Cliff, says he remembers nothing about the incident or his activities leading up to it. "I remember a little bit about waking up in the emergency room afterwards. I was dizzy," he said through an interpreter a day after being released from Parkland Hospital. The former mechanic, who has a wife and three children in California, was hospitalized for two weeks following his seizure at the SMU campus.

Elizabeth Palmer, Vasquez's sister, says her brother suffered considerable memory loss after the seizure episode and wonders whether he endured any permanent effects. "He's been a good, sweet man his whole life, so this has made me so upset," says Palmer, adding that her brother has had a difficult life. After he contracted HIV, his wife left him because he could no longer provide for their kids, she says. Before he found AIDS Services last year, he was so thin and frail she says she was certain he was going to die.

AIDS Services staffers had driven Vasquez and other residents to SMU to watch the end of the Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS, a two-day bike ride and money-raiser. A late-afternoon rally attended by about 300 people closed the event.

Ledbetter says his records show the paramedics arrived four minutes after receiving the call. The AIDS Services witnesses say that once they reached Vasquez, they took a blood sugar reading and blood pressure. By all accounts the seizure abated at that point.

Several of the witnesses say it appeared the paramedics were about to leave when the seizure resumed. The paramedics returned to Vasquez and began working to administer an intravenous solution. Dolezal, who had perhaps the best view, says the paramedic tried to insert the needle from at least a foot or two away. "It was too far away to really have done a good job," she said in her sworn statement. "You could tell he was afraid when he did it."

The needle stab opened a vein, and blood began flowing out and running out on the steps, several witnesses said. "It wasn't oozing; it was pumping," says Dolezal, who says she has witnessed thousands of needle sticks and never seen anybody produce that much bleeding.

Then the paramedics attempted to inject Valium into the IV. On the first attempt, the needle appeared to break. On the second, the syringe crumbled and the liquid squirted into Dolezal's eye. "You know, when they got there, I asked them if I should move, and I was told not to, that the reason was so that I could hold the arm where the blood was," says Dolezal. The medics were wearing gloves, she said. She was not, and they didn't offer her any to protect herself.

After the fumbling with the Valium injection, several of the bystanders began pleading for the paramedics to get Vasquez into the ambulance and head for the hospital. They complied and moved him down the stone steps and onto a gurney, several witnesses said.

"I don't even know how to put it into words," said Feigenbaum, who said the medics dragged Vasquez by the shoulders. "It was horrible treatment."

Maison says the irony of this scene occurring during an event meant to heighten AIDS awareness was not lost on him. He says it was even more disappointing when contrasted with the reception his organization's volunteer bike riders received in "the hinterlands" over the previous two days during their 181-mile ride. "There was so much respect and encouragement along the route. In Decatur they made the riders brownies and homemade foods. They were excited. It had such a very nice feeling to it.

"Then right in the heart of Dallas we get this. I haven't seen this kind of response in Dallas in years."

Later last week, after Chief Ledbetter toured AIDS Services' facilities, met Vasquez, delivered his letter and talked with the staff, Maison was more conciliatory. "He was gracious, and he apologized to Ricardo. I was really impressed," Maison said of the chief. "And with the sensitivity and HIV training, I'm really pleased. I think it's going to be a positive thing."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec