Waiting for Help: Woman files lawsuit against Wayne Co. EMS after they never show up

Published: Apr. 3, 2023 at 11:50 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 3, 2023 at 6:43 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A woman has filed a lawsuit against Wayne County and several county employees over an incident she says caused the death of her husband in 2021.

She called 911 for her husband but she says an ambulance never showed up forcing her to drive her husband to the hospital herself. He died just a few days later.

Imagine calling for help and never getting a clear answer on when it will arrive. That was the reality for Madelene Smith whose husband was beginning to struggle to breathe.

Around 8:30 p.m. on April 14th, 2021– Madelene’s husband, Max, was discharged from the hospital after being diagnosed with pneumonia. They were told to monitor his oxygen levels, and if it dipped below a certain level, to return to the hospital.

That’s exactly what happened at around 10 p.m. that night . Madelene called 911 for the first time at 10:19, then again, 18 minutes later, at 10:37 after help still hadn’t arrived.

Dispatch: “Wayne County 911″

Smith: “Yes ma’am, there’s supposed to be an ambulance coming to. Can you tell me when they’re going to be getting here? "

Dispatch: “I don’t have an ETA on them or anything like that, but they are on the way.”

Madelene made a second 911 call that night as Max’s oxygen levels dropped to critical lows.

Smith: “His oxygen is in the 70s. Would we be quicker driving?”

Dispatch: “Well they’re on the way, so they should be there any time.”

However, according to the 911 log from that day an ambulance still wasn’t in route to Smith’s home after being dispatched two minutes after her initial call.

After 25 minutes, at 10:44 p.m. the Jesup Fire Department arrived and informed her that an ambulance wasn’t on the way.

That’s when Madelene loaded Max into her personal car and drove the 10 minutes to the hospital herself.

Max went into cardiac arrest was placed into a coma and never woke up. He was taken off of life support five days later. The lawsuit states one of the 49-year-old’s main causes of death as not having enough oxygen to the brain. Something Max’s family says is still hard to come to terms with.

“It is a huge adjustment that the center piece of our family just got uprooted and left out of nowhere. It was unexpected. There was no prior notice of any of this happening,” Arrin Turner said.

WTOC Investigates calculated the average EMS response time for April 2021, the month of Max’s death. For 331 EMS calls during that time, the average was around 19 minutes. We also looked at more recent numbers to get a current idea of response times. January 2023 showed a response time of around 13 minutes over 267 calls.

For reference, the National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit that oversees fire and EMS response times, recommends that EMS be on scene in eight minutes.

Now Max’s daughter, Arrin, spends time near this mini-memorial a marker and tree on her McIntosh County property and reflects on the almost two years without the man she called dad and others, knew as Rusty.

“There’s so much he’s missed out on since he’s been gone. I’m sorry. I got married, he wasn’t there. I had a baby, and he wasn’t there,” Turner said.

Turner says her family is just looking for answers and hopes the lawsuit will offer that.

“I think if some of the problems that we brought to the attention of the county were fixed, I think we would have a lot more closure. To know that he wasn’t just, that none of this happened in vain, that there was a good change in the community because of our loss, I think that would help us a lot – if this happened again, it would be treated a lot differently.”

Several Wayne County officials and the county’s lawyer for the lawsuit declined an interview for this story.

The county’s former administrator, Ed Jeffords, is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit. He filed a resignation with the county on Jan. 10, the county commission terminated his contract immediately at their meeting on Jan. 11.

This lawsuit was initially filed in Wayne County court on Jan. 12.

On a phone call with WTOC, Jeffords says his resignation is unrelated to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was elevated to federal court in the Southern District, the family is suing for the full value of Mr. Smith’s life, lost wages, physical, mental, and emotional pain, in an amount to be determined by a jury.