"Justin described things from his end remembering how he heard Dave’s last breath and then again when he finally took his first breath. It felt so amazing to know that someone else shared that with me. I was so alone and scared on that mountain and that voice on the phone was what kept me going. To put that voice together with a real person was one of the most memorable events of my life," says Mary Lee Block.
Pictured from left to right: David Block, Justin Pauwels, Mary Lee Block
"This is the one call over my six-year career that I can intimately remember every detail about," says Justin Pauwels.
On March 2, 2023, Mary Lee Block was presented with the BCEHS Vital Link Award for performing CPR and saving her husband’s life.
BCEHS paramedics and dispatch staff, along with first responder representatives from Salt Spring Search and Rescue and Salt Spring Fire Rescue all reunited at Station 140 in Victoria (AKA: The CRS) for the first time since Mary Lee’s husband, David, suffered a cardiac arrest on a hiking trail in Mount Erskine Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island in March 2021.
Nominator Justin Pauwels, who took over as the emergency medical call-taker (EMCT) on the day Mary Lee performed CPR on her husband, presented the award to Mary Lee and recognized the collaborative efforts to save David’s life that day.
"Mary Lee gave David a chance at survival because she acted, quickly and courageously," Justin said, before presenting Mary Lee with her Vital Link medal and certificate. "As paramedics and dispatchers, we rarely get an opportunity to reunite with our patients, so this is an honour."
In 2021, Alberta residents Mary Lee and David had spent a season living on Salt Spring Island, just 25 kilometers by ferry from Vancouver Island. On March 15, as they hiked through Mt. Erskine Provincial Park, David mentioned he was feeling unwell. Mary Lee walked ahead to see if there was a quicker route out of the park. When she turned back to talk to David, she found he had collapsed.
Mary Lee immediately called 9-1-1. While on the phone with BCEHS EMCT, Amy Curtis, from the Kamloops Dispatch Operations Centre, Mary Lee began CPR.
"I was the initial contact for this call before Justin took it over," Amy says. "As a call-taker, you have the ability to step into people’s lives briefly for a few moments. You sometimes do it 100 times per day, and you’re able to make a real difference by sitting on that end of the phone."
Amy coached Mary Lee in performing CPR before transferring the call to Justin in the Vancouver Island Dispatch Operations Centre, knowing he and his team could better leverage their local knowledge of the area.
"Once we were able to home in exactly where they were at, where they parked, what access they took, we could figure out the best access point for the crews," Justin recalls. "Then, we were able to communicate with the fire and police departments and the search and rescue group responding to the call."
Emergency medical call-takers are the initial point of contact when a patient in B.C. calls 9-1-1. The EMCT quickly assesses the acuity of a given medical situation, gives it a priority code, and passes pertinent information to a BCEHS dispatch crew who then determine which paramedic crew(s) will respond. A call-taker will stay on with a caller, as necessary, to provide coaching, reassurance and guidance.
As David regained consciousness, a BCEHS helicopter was already flying over the area, looking for an appropriate place to land.
With the help of emergency crews on the ground, who had hiked into the park to find the couple, David was air lifted to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. He arrived approximately three hours from the time Mary Lee first called 9-1-1.
"This is the one call over my six-year career that I can intimately remember every detail about,” says Justin. “It’s one of the only calls where I felt that my personal effort has made an impact to the degree that it did. There were a lot of moving parts that required cooperation and collaboration with so many of our internal groups. Once I had identified what needed to be done, I worked with the people that could make it happen."
BCEHS EMCTs and dispatchers have dispatched over half a million ambulances across the province each year over the last five years. In the past three years, 9-1-1 call volumes have increased by 26 per cent. "When working as a call-taker we take so many calls over a year’s worth of work, things can get lost in the mix,” Justin says. “This has been the one call I will always reflect on over the course of my career. And if I can have one situation where my actions have made an impact, then my career at that point is worthwhile. I’m never going to forget this."
Mary Lee and David expressed their appreciation in a letter to the crews who helped that day and attended the Vital Link ceremony in Victoria:
"I do not even know how to begin to express my gratitude to you and your team for the amazing experience you provided for us last week. There are not words to describe the emotions that Dave and I felt both during and after the event. I was so alone and scared on that mountain and that voice on the phone was what kept me going. To put that voice together with a real person was one of the most memorable events of my life."
Despite being the call-taker who guided Mary Lee in her efforts and helped to save David’s life, Justin emphasizes the value of teamwork.
"In a situation where there are so many moving parts, although I was the point of contact, none of this would have happened without the high degree of collaboration and execution that we had within the organization on that particular day," he says. "If any one thing had fallen off, the outcome might not have been the same. It wouldn’t have happened without the team."