Chance Swaim and Michael Stavola
The Wichita Eagle
Sedgwick County EMS Director Dr. John Gallagher was removed from his position Wednesday afternoon following a Wichita Eagle investigation into slow response times and a staff revolt against Gallagher’s leadership.
County Manager Tom Stolz announced the decision during Wednesday’s Sedgwick County Commission meeting after a one-hour executive session “for consultation regarding matters deemed privileged in the attorney-client relationship to discuss matters involving a departmental investigation and employee contractual matters.”
EMS employees called for Gallagher’s removal at two closed-door town hall meetings in late April, spurring county leaders to order an external audit of EMS leadership and protocols by local law firm Hite, Fanning & Honeyman.
Since Gallagher’s promotion to director in August 2019 — against the wishes of a majority of EMS staff — a third of the department has left, causing ambulance shutdowns and dangerously slow response times. This year, Sedgwick County EMS reached fewer than one in three patients within 9 minutes — a national standard for EMS response.
Calls for Gallagher’s resignation came in April following Eagle reporting on his handling of a 2019 case involving a 31-year-old patient who had apparently shot himself in the head. The patient was five minutes away from the nearest hospital, but Gallagher refused to transport him for five hours, even though the man continued breathing and had a pulse.
Wednesday’s decision was announced after Mary Arterburn — mother of retired Wichita Police Officer Brian Arterburn — addressed the Sedgwick County Commission, calling for swift action in response to the Eagle’s recent series of stories showing the department’s struggles under Gallagher.
“Please resolve this today because every second is vital in saving a life,” she said.
Arterburn credited Sedgwick County EMS with saving her son’s life in 2017 after he suffered extensive skull and brain damage when a drug dealer in an SUV ran over his head as he laid spike strips in the road. She said he has undergone several surgeries and years of physical therapy and is “able to live a life being content and happy as he can be. It’s not like it used to be, but he is content.”
She compared her son’s emergency medical treatment to Gallagher’s handling of the 2019 suicidal patient. Gallagher determined the patient was “unsalvageable” and ordered paramedics not to take the man to an emergency room. The man died 10 1/2 hours after the shooting in hospice care.
“I’m so grateful that Mr. Gallagher was not in charge at the time of Brian’s incident,” Arterburn said. “I feel like had Mr. Gallagher been in charge of my son’s life … at that time, he would have said, ‘Well, he won’t have any chance of any kind of life being run over like that. Just wait and let him go.'”
The Kansas Board of EMS has proposed disciplinary action against the first responders who followed Gallagher’s orders on the suicide call. It also asked the Kansas Board of Healing Arts to launch an investigation into Gallagher’s actions as a physician.
Stolz placed Gallagher on paid administrative leave Monday.
Since Gallagher’s promotion two years ago, 92 employees have left the roughly 200-person department, causing ambulance shutdowns and dangerously slow response time.
The 92 employees don’t include Gallagher or Dr. Carolina Pereira, deputy medical director who handed in her 90-day notice amid department turmoil earlier this month after 18 months on the job.
During the April town hall meetings, EMS employees also called on Stolz to remove Gallagher’s executive staff, which includes Pereira and Paul Misasi. Employees accused Pereira of discriminating against them based on sex and retaliation and creating a toxic work environment. They didn’t cite specific complaints against Misasi, deputy director of EMS, but they said he stood by as the department declined without speaking out.
On Monday, Stolz placed Misasi and Bill Robben, an EMS colonel, in charge of the department.
Gallagher started as Sedgwick County’s medical director in 2015 after coming from the same position at a private ambulance service in Winona, Minnesota — a town of around 27,000 people. Stolz promoted him in 2019 as part of a move to consolidate the Office of the Medical Director and Emergency Medical Services, making Sedgwick County EMS one of five physician-led departments in the nation.
Gallagher signed a 5-year, $1.1 million contract in December 2019. Removal without cause would require written notice 90 days in advance and about $111,000, or six months salary. He also works in the emergency rooms at Ascension Via Christi and Wesley Medical Center.
Wesley Medical Center spokesperson Dave Stewart said Wednesday morning Gallagher was still a physician there.
Gallagher’s status could change based on the findings by the Kansas State Board of EMS or the Kansas Board of Healing Arts regarding his handling of the 2019 suicide call.
“There would definitely be probably a review process on our end, but that would be subsequent to the state board and other findings” such as the termination at Sedgwick County, Stewart said.
Ascension Via Christi, where Gallagher is also a physician, did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
No one immediately responded about his status from the Sedgwick County Medical Society, where Gallagher sits on a multiple committees, or the National Association of EMS Physicians, where Gallagher is a board member.
Also Wednesday, the Sedgwick County Commission moved to improve bumpy ambulance rides, which Commissioner Jim Howell said have been a nagging problem for EMS. By unanimous vote, the commission approved Commissioner David Dennis’ motion to spend $2.29 million for seven new ambulances to be outfitted with sturdier chassis than the existing fleet.
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