Paramedic supervisor fights for his career

Family of teen who died in wreck wants overseer on duty that night


 
 

Clif Leblanc | | Monday, August 20, 2007


Aug. 20--Stuart Platt was an accomplished paramedic with an unblemished record, until a Friday night in the spring of 2004 when everything fell apart.

Now, the litany of mistakes that three government agencies said Platt made overseeing a fatal collision on April 16, 2004, in Gilbert threaten to end his 22-year career.

State regulators have taken the rare step of trying to revoke Platt's certification, finding he contributed to the death of Citadel cadet Michael Cockrell, 19.

But last month, a judge decided the Lexington County ambulance shift supervisor's inaction and decisions were out of character. He cut the punishment to 15 months' suspension.

Neither Platt nor the Cockrells are satisfied.

Platt's lawyer has hinted in court documents that an appeal is likely. Neither he nor his client would comment.

The Cockrells consider any suspension insufficient.

"He should never be in a supervisory position again," Paul Cockrell, Michael's father, said last week. "He's not qualified to make life-and-death decisions."

Two other emergency medical technicians under Platt's supervision also were disciplined for their conduct that cool, clear night on St. Paul's Church Road.

Jason Harris, then 22, has left ambulance work. The other, Jeffrey Matthews, was busted in rank.

Platt remains a supervisor while the dispute plays out in bureaucracies and courts.

The battle grows from the wreckage emergency workers discovered when they arrived to find three people trapped in two mangled cars after a head-on collision on the country road.

A father and young son in a Buick were not as seriously injured as the college student, who suffered critical blows to the head.

Michael Paul Cockrell, a slight 5-feet-8 and 135 pounds, managed to hold on for eight days after the collision.

For three years since, Platt, 47, has been fighting to resuscitate his professional life.

The Cockrells have been seeking peace and justice.

They have gone to counseling. They filed complaints and sued the county, where mother Geanie Cockrell has worked for 30 years.

"That night there were not the proper people there ... paramedics who know what they're doing," said Paul Cockrell, now 53. "And they did not make the proper decisions.

"If it's your wife or your daughter, (the lawsuit) is going to get them the proper treatment. That's what we're after."

TRAGIC EVENTS

As if in a sorrowful script, nothing seemed to go right that night.

Paul Cockrell rushed to the scene of the accident to check on his son, who was about a mile from home on a weekend visit from college.

Harris tried to help but, he told a man standing by the car, Cockrell "was gone." Harris called for a sheet to cover the body.

The man, standing by the car, was Paul Cockrell.

"I was in so much shock, sitting there watching (Michael struggle) for 15 minutes," the father said. "I never seen (the technician) touch him, take a pulse."

The teenager appeared to be struggling to free himself.

Cockrell thought his son's violent movements could have been involuntary reflexes. The technician knew his job, the father thought, so he never challenged Harris.

Grieved, Cockrell went home to deliver his wife and daughter the God-awful news.

But the teenager was not dead.

Court records show Cockrell did not get enough fluids or oxygen for almost an hour. It took almost two hours to cut him from the wreckage of a white, 1996 Chrysler Sebring and get him onto a rescue helicopter.

In yet another sad twist, Harris and Matthews, who answered the emergency, had noticed the cadet minutes earlier, before the accident, in his summer uniform as he fueled the car.

"We were complimenting the fact that he's probably a good, level-headed kid," Harris testified, "probably on a good road to success."

CHAOTIC SCENE

Details of what happened that night are laid out in the judge's order, court and other records.

A passing motorist reported the collision between the Sebring -- traveling an estimated 80 mph -- and the Buick sedan about 10:20 p.m. Cockrell had lost control on a curve and crossed the center line, the Highway Patrol said.

The injured child in the Buick was screaming.

Cockrell was pinned by metal that had caved in around his legs.

At 10:27 p.m., a dispatcher alerted ambulances, firefighters and police and put a helicopter on notice. A minute later, the dispatcher sent the closest ambulance. It was staffed by experienced medical technicians, less qualified than paramedics.

Shift supervisor Platt rejected two offers of help from one of the county's most skilled paramedics, who specializes in freeing trapped motorists, the judge said.

That paramedic eventually was called to the site and freed Cockrell within seven minutes.

Platt later said he should have sent that colleague, or gone himself, or checked more often to gauge the severity of the situation.

But he said he trusted the judgment of the technicians who responded to the call. They never contacted him for help, said Platt, who was 25 minutes away at the county hospital picking up supplies for other ambulances.

At 11:10 p.m., almost an hour after the report of the collision, someone realized Cockrell was barely alive. An oxygen mask lay beside him.

The teenager had 17 minutes left in what physicians call the "golden hour," after which recovery, even survival, becomes unlikely.

Harris, now 25, testified he did the best he could. But, "There's many things I did wrong that night."

The Cockrells know that better than anyone.

"I don't want to remember too much about that night," Paul Cockrell said. "I try to think about the good times."

REVOCATION OR SUSPENSION?

Platt, an experienced and respected paramedic supervisor, acknowledges he made mistakes.

In court, Platt said on that busy night, as he supervised 10 ambulances, he received no confirmation anyone was trapped, got little feedback on the severity of the injuries or that helicopters had been sent..

"It's kind of like a mother at a playground," he testified. "When she hears that kid scream over all the other kids, she knows that's her kid.

"But in the absence of that kid screaming, she doesn't necessarily know that child may need her help."

Lexington County put Platt on six months' probation and docked his pay.

But the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the state agency that certifies medical technicians, decided Platt deserved tougher punishment.

On May 8, 2006, the state agency moved to revoke Platt's medical technician certificate. That would keep Platt out of an ambulance for at least three years.

Four other technicians have lost their certification in the last five years. Platt would be the first shift supervisor to lose his certification during that period, the agency said.

Platt appealed to the state's Administrative Law Court. Chief Judge Marvin Kittrell found July 20 that Platt had committed professional misconduct. But Kittrell decided revocation of Platt's certification was too stiff for a first offense.

He called Platt "skilled in his profession" and "a sincere person."

Platt wants Kittrell to reconsider. His suspension is postponed until the judge rules.




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