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Drumclog St resident Val McNamara (91) tripped on a concrete paver while sweeping her garden path about noon last Thursday, and fell into the neighbouring dirt border, gashing her arm severely in the process.
Fortunately neighbour of 10 years Ila Ryan (77) pulled up in her adjoining carport shortly afterwards, and heard her friend’s cries for help from over the fence.
Mrs Ryan dialled 111 and was told an ambulance would be dispatched.
The dispatcher instructed her not to try to move Mrs McNamara, who has reduced mobility, but to make her comfortable.
After an hour had passed, the pair became concerned about the delay, so called 111 once more.
"We were told the same again: an ambulance would be dispatched and sit tight. But still no-one turned up."
Following a succession of further calls to the dispatch centre, and after more than three hours stranded in full sun in her vegetable bed, Mrs McNamara suggested they call a second friend for assistance.
"Well they called the police, and within minutes a local officer came round and helped us get Val sorted. But still no sign of an ambulance."
Shortly after, Mrs McNamara’s son excused himself from work and drove her to Dunedin Hospital for attention.
Since the incident, Mrs Ryan said she had talked to friends connected to St John locally, and was shocked by what she had been told.
"Apparently there are three ambulances in Balclutha, but because they now have to be double-crewed, only one is usually operational. And if that’s already on a job, hard luck," Mrs Ryan said.
Had her friend’s condition been more serious, the outcome could have been disastrous, Mrs Ryan said.
"Imagine if someone has a stroke or heart attack. What then? It’s just not good enough."
Mrs McNamara said her prevailing emotion during and following the incident had been frustration.
"Actually I’m just really cross. Had the dispatcher simply said to begin with, there’s no ambulance available for at least a few hours, we could have made our own arrangements."
Both women said the situation made a mockery of St John’s and other personal emergency alarm services.
Mrs McNamara said blame should not fall upon local staff, but on those who had "tinkered with the system".
St John Rural Otago Territory Manager David Milne said any delay in ambulance response was regrettable.
"We acknowledge that in this case we did not meet the 111 caller’s expectations.
"St John takes patient welfare very seriously and we are reaching out to the patient to discuss her care."
Mr David said Balclutha had a fully crewed ambulance which was available 24/7, and a volunteer first response unit had been established to give the region additional emergency medical cover.
"It is always our objective to respond as soon as possible with an ambulance if required.
"However, in some cases when all available ambulance resources are committed to other incidents, there may be a delay in responding to a non-life-threatening incident.
"This was the case on this occasion with the patient being assessed as not being in an immediately life-threatening condition."