The family of a 90-year-old woman who fell and broke her hip have criticised an ambulance delay which saw her wait for over an hour on a cold pavement.
Agnes Sharvin, a former nurse and midwife, faced the agonising wait close to her home in Strangford, Co Down, last Saturday afternoon after tripping on a short walk to the shops.
Local people who went to her aid claimed it was 90 minutes before an ambulance arrived to take her to hospital. Although Strangford is just eight miles away from the nearby Downe Hospital, its A&E department is now closed at weekends. This meant an ambulance had to drive nearly 30 miles from the Ulster Hospital.
Mrs Sharvin's son Barry has thanked those who stopped and tried to keep her warm before he got to the scene. He said he feared what would have happened to her in bad weather.
"Thank God it was dry," he said. "Thank God it was not raining.
"She had smashed her hip. She was freezing and local people had wrapped her in blankets and hot water bottles and did their best to keep her warm."
Mr Sharvin, who is the principal of De La Salle High School in Downpatrick, said it was an unacceptable wait.
"When I found her cold it annoyed me," he said. "Her temperature had really dropped, but she was just keen to say what good neighbours she had.
"The first ambulance response came through in an hour in a car but they could not move her and we had to wait on the ambulance. She had to lie on the cold ground. She had also hurt her hand."
Mr Sharvin said his mother's experience was ironic considering her own dedicated healthcare background.
"She used to be a district nurse and a midwife and from a young age she would have been around the Mourne Mountains delivering babies," he said.
"I'm not sure if her background helped keep her calm because she is a calm person anyway."
Mrs Sharvin was taken to the Ulster Hospital where she currently remains. She celebrated her 90th birthday on Wednesday.
Eamonn McGrady, chairman of Down Community Health Committee, pointed out that Strangford was not an especially isolated part of Co Down. He said there were questions health chiefs needed to answer.
"This particular circumstance raises serious concerns," he said. "I believe it to be one of the worst delay-wise.
"The community will always try to help in these circumstances and it just goes to show how strong the sense of community is here, but people should not be put in that position."
John McPoland, spokesman for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS), said they had "received reports of a patient who had fallen and sustained a hand injury in Strangford on March 7.
"The call was categorised as non-life threatening but was later upgraded when the patient's condition deteriorated and it became clear it was a hip, not hand, injury.
"The appropriate available crews, including rapid response paramedic, were despatched to the scene.
"The nearest available A&E vehicle, required to bring the patient to hospital, was despatched from the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald. NIAS would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the patient for the delay in responding to this call."
In January 2014 the A&E departments at the Downe Hospital in Downpatrick and the Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn faced a reduction in opening hours, meaning no weekend cover or cover from 8pm in the evenings. A national shortage of emergency doctors was blamed in both cases. An out of hours GP service operates instead beside the Downe Emergency Department. Since the cuts a number of concerns have been raised by patients facing delays when phoning for an ambulance in the Down area.