Capt. Christopher Dixon goes over safety procedures for seniors at Bicentennial Towers. Detroit fire and EMS personnel are educating residents on emergencies. (Daniel Mears The Detroit News)
Detroit — No one knew Phyllis McBroom quite like Detroit EMS.
After 416 calls for emergency response in five years, her address, 9559 Cheyenne St., was once recognized by every paramedic and emergency medical technician in the city.
McBroom was a loving wife who cared for her husband who suffered from a number of conditions, including Alzheimer's disease. And she struggled with her own illnesses, too. She went from being a "vibrant, healthy" woman to developing Type 2 diabetes, to being confined to a wheelchair to eventually being bed-ridden.
EMS responded each time 911 was dialed as her condition worsened until she died in 2006 at age 75.
"She became brittle, and her husband couldn't help her because he was sick, and they passed through a spiral of medical ailments until they finally expired," EMS Chief Jerald James said. "Everyone on the job knew her by name because they had been impacted by her so many times. She was a sweetheart through it all."
But after her death, her memory lives on in Detroit as EMS officials seek to reduce heavy response call cases like hers that drain limited services by educating residents on preventive care. It's a move, they hope, to ease the annual EMS call volume of 135,000.
"A lot of times they'll call the 911 system because they don't know who else to call," Detroit EMS Lt. Anthony Wade said. "They'll say, 'I'm sick, and I can't see my doctor this week, so I'll just call 911 to take me to the hospital.'"
But those calls come at a high cost — to the caller and the city. The average basic life support transport costs $450 per trip while advance life support runs, for instances such as heart attacks, cost $800 each. Over the past 10 years, however, EMS has been able to collect payments only from 32 percent to 35 percent of the calls — mostly through insurance, officials said. EMS, meanwhile, is obligated to transport patients regardless of their insurance status. After a survey last year found that nine of the top 15 addresses for EMS calls were senior citizen high-rises, EMS officials decided to become more proactive in preventing medical emergencies by holding health seminars at each of these locations this year.
The six-month survey also found Detroit's three casinos — MGM, Greektown and MotorCity — were among the top four addresses with more than 180 calls each. Other addresses in the list included homeless shelters and the Rosa Parks Transit Center.
"This is the defining moment for the city's health care system and EMS," James said. "With the city's fiscal challenges, we can't continue to do stuff like we used to. You can't just fix the problem with more people and more units. That has not worked successfully for the city.
"There has to be a better way to fix the city's emergency response system, and I think the key to that is education."
EMS hosted its first two programs at Midtown's Bicentennial Towers on Alexandrine Street in January and Cambridge Towers on Evergreen on the city's northwest side last month. The two locations combined for more than 300 calls in the six-month stretch that was surveyed. EMS plans to hold the next seminar in April at Village Center Apartments on Pallister in the New Center area.
At each program, EMS brought a couple of paramedics to conduct health screenings while other health care organizations, including Detroit Area Agency on Aging and Warriors on Wheels, informed the seniors on non-emergency health services.
"We found a lot of agencies to come in the interim to help you with all these type of services to get all the simple things done," Wade told the senior citizens.
Standing in front of rows of walkers, canes and scooters at Cambridge Towers, James gauged the room of seniors, asking: "How many of you have had an experience with EMS?"
A woman from the crowd of nearly two dozen seniors quickly responded: "Everybody."
But even though the EMS sightings are an almost daily occurrence, James said the residents had "zero" understanding on what qualifies as an emergency.
James said it's difficult for EMS personnel to know what to expect on a call, citing examples in which paramedics responded to seniors wanting help with chores or asking for help coping with the loss of a family member. And while EMS juggles its heavy call volume, it has become apparent non-emergency calls sometimes distract EMS' worn fleet of ambulances from urgent situations.
"We like to define an emergency as anything you cannot handle," James told the seniors.
Jacqueline Price, 65, nodded her head in agreement. In January, she accounted for one of the actual emergency runs to Cambridge.
"I was short of breath, and they kept me in ICU for a week," Price said. "It was my last resort. I kept putting it off."
At the time, none of the Cambridge employees were trained in first aid or CPR. Now, the entire staff — from managers to custodians — is certified in both, thanks to free training from EMS.
"I really appreciate them coming out, especially considering the financial situation the city is in," Cambridge Towers property manager Patricia Thomas said.
"Lots of times they come here and it's for non-emergencies like if someone falls or something, so hopefully this will help them cut down on those calls because there could be someone out there who really needs their help."
Cambridge resident Pearl Scott, 87, and others are hoping the sessions will lead to a safer Detroit.
"This is the first time we have had something like this," Scott said. "We all hope things will be different."