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Paramedic's Deadly Error Led to Weeks of PR Mistakes

SAN ANTONIO -- Three weeks after Erica Smith died, the truth about the attempt to save her emerged in a closed-door meeting of high-ranking city officials.

As Smith lay bleeding from a massive head injury inside a mangled car, a paramedic made a grave error. Presuming her dead, he never checked her pulse.

Fire Chief Charles Hood delivered the news at a City Council executive session Monday, along with this: That paramedic and three others have been pulled from emergency response duty.

In the saga of the woman left for dead who turned out to be alive, these are stunning, about-face developments.

Back in December, Hood defended his troops. He said they'd checked Smith for a pulse, found none and covered her with a yellow sheet.

The chief also said he didn't expect the paramedics to be disciplined. Now here they are, booted from EMS, allowed only to fight fires.

If you met Hood, you'd probably like him. Smart, passionate, forward-thinking, he looks like a strong chief -- just not in the Erica Smith case.

It's never good when a guy charged with fire prevention ignites a firestorm. And that's what Hood did last month.

After his troops mistakenly abandoned Smith, Hood said he had nothing to apologize for. His guys weren't driving the car that hit Smith and her friends.

Hood has since apologized -- many times, in fact -- but until Tuesday, he refused to release routine information.

Who was the paramedic who was supposed to check Smith for a pulse? Who were the partners, and did they call the doctor supervising their work?

Two people who attended Monday's executive session gave me some off-the-record answers. But no official details were provided until the chief was pressed all day Tuesday.

If Hood was only following orders, his bosses must share the blame for this public relations disaster. From the start, this tragedy has been a succession of bad judgment calls and stonewalling.

If a cop shoots and kills someone, accidentally or in self-defense, SAPD releases names and places the officer on administrative duty.

If a paramedic views a traumatized accident victim and leaves her for dead, SAFD goes into cover-up mode and calls it an internal review. Three weeks later, details are shared behind closed doors.

"All of this is very shocking," says one city leader who attended Monday's meeting. "The initial responder did not check for a pulse. It was just a visual inspection. You are talking about supposedly well-trained professionals that didn't follow standard protocol."

Mike Gardner, I learned late Monday, is the paramedic who failed to check Smith's pulse. I'm told he does his job well. "I'd put my life in his hands," one paramedic says.

Even so, paramedics say he should have checked for a pulse -- regardless of fatigue or the hour. "You still have to be on top of your game," the paramedic says.

Gardner wasn't the only one who erred. Three other paramedics were disciplined, though no one says why. Also, a ladder truck with the Jaws of Life initially was not made available to the accident scene. One should have been.

Others erred. Paramedics are taking note. One tells me he's taking extra precaution when he finds a body.

"I came upon a hanging victim the other day," an EMT says. "He'd been dead for a little while, but I put a heart monitor on him, just to be sure."

Just to be sure is an attitude other paramedics are adopting. In the life-and-death business, it's hard to live with doubt.

Call Ken Rodriguez at (210) 250-3369 or e-mail krodriguez@express-news.net

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JEMS.com Editor s Note: Click here for a previous story on this issue.

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