Ambulance Safety at the Core of N.J. Bill

Before the year's end, state legislators plan to call for a vote on a bill that would require ambulances to be equipped with special seat belts for patients in wheelchairs


Mike Kelly, The Record | | Tuesday, September 27, 2011

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. -- On an April afternoon in 2008, an empty ambulance pulled up to the nursing home ward at Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus.

An elderly man, who suffered from Parkinson's disease and had lived on the ward for seven years, was rolled out in a wheelchair.

The man had an appointment with a physical therapist in Englewood Cliffs. The ambulance was supposed to get him there safely.

That never happened.

Doctors discovered the man had a broken neck when he arrived. He died eight months later after being hospitalized and breathing on a respirator.

The death of Hanson Kim Tun Chan, 86, a retired photographer who lived in Fort Lee before being confined to Bergen Regional in 2001, did not make headlines. Nor has the legislation proposed in his memory to strengthen seat belt regulations for ambulances.

That may change in the coming months, however.

Chan's death is the subject of a civil suit between his wife and the ambulance company. At the same time, state legislators say they plan to call for a vote before the end of the year on a bill that would require ambulances to be equipped with special seat belts for patients in wheelchairs.

In a state capital awash in the floodtides of partisanship, a bill to fix seat belt laws can understandably fly under the political radar. It has no known opposition, and support from a variety of Republicans and Democrats in the Assembly and Senate.

"It's an important safety precaution that is actually quite rational," said one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Teaneck Democrat.

But the notion that some ambulances may not be entirely safe seems to contradict the function of an ambulance -- to transport vulnerable people to safety and be safe about doing it. Who would ever imagine a problem with seat belts?

Amy Chan knows the problem all too well.

She is 76 now. After years of running the Gourmet Orient takeout restaurant in Fort Lee, she found herself in 2001 having to care full time for her husband.

Hanson Chan was almost a decade older. But the two knew each other as children in Burma, where their families sought shelter during World War II. Hanson came to the United States in 1954. Amy followed in 1965.

In 2001, however, Hanson needed full-time care for his advancing Parkinson's disease. Amy placed him in the nursing home ward at Bergen Regional. She visited him each day.

That's how she met Rene Cantwell of Dumont, whose father lived at the nursing home for a decade before he died in 2009.

When Cantwell heard about Hanson Chan's death, she started researching seat belt regulations for ambulances. What she found, she said, was an appalling lack of protection.

Wheelchairs were required to be secured to the floor of an ambulance. But state regulations called for only a Velcro strap on the patient in the wheelchair -- a far cry from the across-the-chest seat belts that are required in cars.

"I just couldn't believe this was the legal standard," said Cantwell, who has posted a video on YouTube titled "wheelchair securement."

Cantwell called legislators and managed to get a bill drafted that would require an across-the-chest seat belt for wheelchair patients.

At her Fort Lee home, Amy Chan lives with the memory of that April afternoon when she watched as her husband was taken off an ambulance with a broken neck.

Chan had driven to the physical therapist's office in Englewood Cliffs to meet her husband. He was late, however, and she wondered why. When the ambulance pulled up, she was shocked at his condition.

His head slumped forward, a baseball cap covering his eyes. His arms dangled over the side of the wheelchair, she said.

Chan removed her husband's baseball cap. She says his forehead was bruised and the bridge of his nose was cut.

She turned to the driver for an explanation. But the driver, a Korean immigrant, did not speak English -- or Chinese, she said.

Hours later, doctors discovered Hanson Chan had a broken neck.

But how did this happen?

That question is now the heart of a lawsuit awaiting trial in Superior Court in Hackensack.

Amy Chan claims her husband was thrust from his wheelchair, possibly when the ambulance had to make a sudden stop. She is not sure, though. And her husband never was able to articulate what happened to him before he died.

A spokeswoman for Eden Ambulance, which has the contract to transport patients from the Bergen Regional nursing home to doctor's appointments, declined to comment, citing the fact that the case was still pending.

But Eden's corporate counsel, Steve Kalebic, an attorney in Hackensack, suggested that Chan was not injured while the ambulance drove him to his physical therapy appointment.

"The guy was belted in," Kalebic said. "It's our position that we did everything we were supposed to do."

As for Chan being injured while snapping forward in the midst of a quick stop, Kalebic said: "It's our understanding that it didn't happen that way."

He declined to elaborate.

In the end, we may never conclusively learn how Hanson Chan's neck was broken. But we may have stronger seat belt laws.

"This shouldn't happen to other people to suffer like this," Amy Chan said. "It is so sad to die this way."

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