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Tragic 999 call rang for ‘an eternity’

The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has apologised to the family of a Lisburn woman who died of a heart attack after taking over three minutes to answer a 999 call for help.

William Hamilton told an inquest into the death of his wife Carolyn (60) that he phoned 999 when she collapsed at around 1.30am on Monday September 1 last year.

He told Belfast Coroner’s Court it “felt like an eternity” when it took three minutes and 22 seconds to get an answer.

Mrs Hamilton collapsed around two hours after she had felt pain which they both thought was indigestion. She had also vomited.

Mr Hamilton said his wife, who took tablets for high blood pressure but did not know she was suffering from heart disease, then “collapsed in a heap” and stopped breathing.

He phoned for an ambulance to their home at Belsize Road.

A BT operator put the retired financial adviser through to the ambulance service control centre at Knockbracken. But it took three minutes 22 seconds for the ambulance operator to answer.

An ambulance was sent from Lagan Valley Hospital, and took just under four minutes to reach the family home.

The crew then called the coronary care ambulance, which came from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Attempts at resuscitation by both crews were unsuccessful.

Dr David McManus, NIAS medical director, said it was a busier-than-usual Sunday night, with 14 calls waiting in a queue to be answered during Mr Hamilton’s wait.

Only four people were on duty to take calls from the public instead of the usual six. Two were off due to sickness and holiday leave.

Mr Hamilton questioned the Ambulance Service target — that 70% of calls should be answered within 10 seconds — and said it compared badly with targets in other parts of the UK.

Dr McManus said: “I fully accept and very much regret the delay... we fully appreciate how difficult and distressing this is for Mr Hamilton.”

The court heard that four more staff had since been taken on by Ambulance Service to answer the public’s calls.

A post-mortem found that Mrs Hamilton had been suffering from heart disease and died of coronary atheroma and thrombosis.

Dr Gillian Clarke, medical adviser to the coroners service, said Mrs Hamilton had been suffering from a "very critical and severe underlying heart condition".

Coroner Joanne Donnelly said she was satisifed the deceased died of natural causes. She added: "I note that the Ambulance Service has acknowledged that there was an unacceptable delay in answering the call and that steps have been and are being taken to ensure that delays such a this do not recur in the future."

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