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Paramedic's Career in the Balance

Paramedics who left a woman for dead are waiting fro a final decision from the city.

February is an ominous month for Cegurna L. Thomas. Four years ago she survived a devastating fire that killed her beloved cat and destroyed all her belongings. This February she was left for dead by Alexandria Fire Department EMS personnel when she wasn't -- dead that is.

As a result of the latter incident, the career of a 16 year Alexandria Fire Department paramedic is now in the hands of Henry Howard, director, Personnel Services, City of Alexandria. His decision, either way, could reverberate throughout City government and the courts.

"The City has a process that deals with such matters. I can't say anymore, just that we have a process," Howard said when contacted about his decision making process. "A decision should be rendered in about a week."

Following that decision, "The Department head and the individual will be notified by official mail," he said. When asked about the process itself Howard would not elaborate.

THE CASE in question grew out of a call to the Alexandria Fire Department on February 4 when paramedics were summoned to the home of Cegurna L. Thomas on Oronoco Street in the Hopkins Tancil, Section 8, housing units of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. They found her unconscious and were not able to locate a pulse.

According to Department official records,Ó Alexandria Fire Department responded to a reported medical emergency at 300 Oronoco St. The initial call was received at 9:48 a.m. EMS units cleared the incident at 9:59 a.m. On that same date, the Fire Department responded to the same address in response to a call received at 10:04 a.m. Units cleared this incident at 11:16 a.m."

Both calls were in response to Thomas's medical emergency. When the EMS personnel could not find a pulse on the initial call they presumed that Thomas was dead and she was turned over to the police on the scene.

Within a few minutes after their departure Police, officers at the scene noticed an eye twitch and some labored breathing by Thomas.

They immediately called for the return of the paramedics.

ACCORDING TO a statement released by Jane Malik, public information officer, Alexandria Fire Department: "Both responses were for the same person. The first call was for an unconscious person. The second was received from the Alexandria Police Department because their officer on the scene believed the person had a pulse. No one was transported from the first response. One person was transported to Inova Alexandria Hospital from the second. The EMS unit responded from Station 5, 1210 Cameron Street."

As a result of their actions on the first call, both paramedics have been disciplined by Fire Chief Gary Mesaris. One, a 16 year veteran of the department, has been dismissed and the other received a suspension. The Department would not release the names of the paramedics under personnel policy.

An administrative hearing was held last Friday under the aegis of the City Personnel Department to determine if the dismissal will be sustained, according to Firefighter John Vollmer, president, Local 2141, Firefighters Union. "We are waiting to hear the decision of the Personnel Director," he said. "But, we, as a union, are very upset. Right now we are trying to work within the system. But, once we get the decision we'll go from there," Vollmer said. The union has retained the services of a District of Columbia law firm that specializes in Union grievance cases, according to Vollmer.

"Over the years we have only had one case where an individual was fired for actions taken while on duty. We have had disciplinary actions were someone received unpaid leave for 96 working hours," he said.

Vollmer pointed out that "it is standard operating procedure that EMS personnel do not deal with DOA (Dead on Arrival) personnel. We leave that to the funeral authorities. That applies to all cases where the patient is dead at the scene of the incident."

WHEN ASKED for his comments, Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris issued the following statement. "The circumstances surrounding the event were unfortunate. Service to the community is the most important function of our Fire Department and, as such, the actions taken that day are being thoroughly investigated with appropriate actions taken to ensure that the high quality service our customers expect and deserve is not compromised."

The process referred to by Howard is covered under Administrative Regulation 6-20, Discipline of Employees, according to Barbara Gordon, public information officer, City of Alexandria. It states,

"Employees are subject to discipline for behavior, whether on or off the job, when it reflects adversely against the City."

As outlined in Administrative Regulation 6-20, "Disciplinary action should be remedial in nature... Termination should be utilized only for serious or repeat offenses." The various options available to the Personnel Department are: Oral reprimand, Written reprimand, Loss of annual leave, Leave pending review, Minor suspension, Major suspension, Demotion, and Termination.

THIS WAS not the first time such an incident had occurred to Thomas. "One time before I blacked out and had to go to the hospital. But, I was able to be revived that time. It was about a year ago," she said.

Thomas suffers from a series of illnesses that include hernias, asthma and congestive heart problems. She is confined to a wheelchair with breathing apparatus.

When they got me to the hospital they found that I had no potassium in my body. It took three or four days to get me back to normal," she said.

"I have an appointment with the doctor on April 1. My regular doctor is gone and I couldn't get an appointment with a new doctor at the Casey Clinic until then," Thomas said.

"I really don't remember anything about that day (February 4) except waking up in the hospital with all these tubes in me," said 56 year-old Thomas. "I really don't want these people to loose their jobs over this. But, some of my family and friends don't agree with me," she said.

A 30 year resident of Alexandria, Thomas is a native of Columbus, Ohio, who came here originally to care for her grandfather. At that time she was employed by the CIA as a clerk-typist. She left the CIA in 1968 to work for the Department of the Army.

She retired from Federal Government five years ago on disability after 30 years service. "I have a companion that comes in every morning to help me. Otherwise I'm alone the rest of the time," she said.

Thomas has lived on Oronoco Street for the last eight years. She has been in her present home for four years, since the fire in her home at the other end of the block. Prior to that she lived in other ARHA housing on Patrick Street.

"That fire was one of the worst things in my life. I lost everything including my cat. I still cry over her loss. I sure hope those paramedics don't lose their jobs over this," she said again.