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Inquest Probes Whether EMS Strike Played a Role in Man's Death

TORONTO -- It took 35 minutes and three 911 calls before emergency workers began rescue efforts for a man dying of a heart attack in the lobby of a downtown apartment building, a coroner's inquest heard Tuesday.

The first two 911 calls were assigned a low priority, even though James Hearst, 59, had a history of serious heart problems, government lawyer Stefania Fericean said in her opening remarks at an inquest into Hearst's death.

She noted that paramedics arrived earlier on the evening of June 25, 2009, but chose to stand by around the corner from his Alexander St. apartment building and wait for a police escort while a security guard and passersby tried unsuccessfully to save Hearst.

The first two 911 calls weren't classed as urgent by a dispatcher, Fericean said. Finally, half an hour after Hearst's collapse, the call was upgraded to urgent. Firefighters arrived three minutes later, but it was too late to revive Hearst.

The coroner's inquest, before Dr. Albert Lauwers, is expected to hear 26 witnesses -- including 911 dispatchers and paramedics -- and is set to run until Feb. 17.

A key question is whether a strike by emergency workers at the time of Hearst's death affected his care.

The ambulance service was operating at 75 percent of its usual staffing level, due to a strike. After a legal challenge last year by CUPE Local 416, which represents paramedics, the inquest will be allowed to examine whether the strike hurt delivery of medical services to Hearst, but can't dig into broader topics such as whether paramedics should have the right to strike.

Dr. James Edwards, regional supervising coroner for Toronto East, said there was no suggestion that Hearst might have been an illicit drug user or the victim of foul play or an unhealthy lifestyle.

"There was no evidence of anything untoward," Edwards testified.

Edwards noted that Hearst, who worked as a transportation broker, had a heart attack in 2004, and that he followed a doctor's advice to quit smoking and take medication.

City of Toronto lawyer Robert Baldwin said outside court that the city now has a labour agreement that calls for an 85 per cent staffing level by paramedics in a strike.

Hearst's partner, Alejandro Martinez, said in an interview he needs answers. "Unfortunately I wasn't able to be with him for his last moments," he said. "So far, I haven't been able to get anybody to give me clear answers of what happened. ... Why it took so long for responders."



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