When newspaper editor Matt Briscoe had a headache that just wouldn’t end he didn’t think much of it. But hours later on a Sunday evening in early July, he quickly realized that something was wrong when he felt a numbness in his left arm and was missing all control on his left side. It was then when realized that it was time to do something and headed with his wife to the nearest hospital less than half a mile away. What happened to Briscoe next was a sort of nightmare and luckily, he lived to tell the story.
Briscoe stumbled into the nearly empty emergency room just after 10:00 pm. “I was actually thankful that the ER was relatively empty,” Briscoe says. “But, I was so concerned that I was not really taking notes at the time.”
After checking in Briscoe waited about 10 minutes before being seen in triage where they worked him up for a quick preliminary diagnosis. Moments later, Briscoe was whisked into a nearby room where a technician would draw his blood and then send him back out into the waiting room to wait.
“We waited about 30 more minutes before the attending came in and gave me an assessment,” Briscoe recalls. “He said that I was presenting with signs and symptoms of a stroke and that I would be staying in the hospital for at least a few days.”
But then, to Briscoe’s amazement the doctor sent him back into the emergency room to wait. There, Briscoe and his wife nervously waited about another 30 minutes before he was finally taken back for a CT scan and x-rays. But it then happened yet again, Briscoe was ushered back into the lobby to wait another 15-20 minutes before finally being called back to a treatment room.
Once in the treatment room, a nurse came in and started an IV, took some more blood and waited on the doctor. A television was set up with a link to another doctor in another location who ran Briscoe through another series of questions and ordered a series of tests.
Following the tests, the attending physician at Christus Spohn South came in with words that Briscoe and his wife were not expecting.
“We believe you have a blood clot in the cerebral artery,” the doctor explained. “The good news is that it CANNOT be treated here locally because there are not any doctors capable of treating this here in Corpus Christi,” the doctor went onto say.
He explained to Briscoe that a helicopter would soon be coming to take him to Baylor hospital in San Antonio. Once there an awaiting team would run a catheter through an artery into his brain and remove the clot. It was not what they wanted to hear—but at least it was treatable.
They called their church leader who rushed to their side at 2:30 in the morning. Briscoe and his wife were terrified but they knew that the surgery must be done.
By 3:00 a.m. it was determined that a helicopter could not be used to transport Briscoe to San Antonio and that a fixed-wing aircraft would transport him to Baylor St. Luke’s hospital in Houston for further treatment. The situation for Briscoe was becoming even more frustrating and frightening. His wife was in utter shock.
Nearly an hour later, they were informed that the airplane was busy and that he would travel 3 hours by ground ambulance to the awaiting hospital in Houston. By 5:00 in the morning Briscoe was still waiting when a nurse came in and explained that the primary ambulance crew had not shown up and that a backup crew was supposedly en route.
Just before 6:00 a.m. a ragtag crew from the ambulance company arrived to transport Briscoe to the awaiting care team in Houston.
“This isn’t my patient, is it?” Briscoe and his pastor heard the young paramedic say. “He isn’t critical. He doesn’t look critical to me,” the paramedic quipped at the nurse. Before they knew it, the nurse and the attending doctor were giving the young, unkempt paramedic a piece of their mind. Briscoe and those around him had their concerns as to if Briscoe was even in capable hands? Their concerns were well justified.
Briscoe was loaded onto a stretcher and begrudgingly loaded into a very small, dirty ambulance operated by South Texas Air-Med EMS. His concerns were well justified.
The crew was furious that they were having to even make the trip to Houston with what they believed was a non-critical patient. So much so, that Briscoe was even lectured by the young paramedic about his situation and how this trip disrupted his plans for the day. The paramedic even allowed for a stop for donuts and coffee while Briscoe waited in the back of the ambulance unattended.
Prior to leaving Corpus Christi, Briscoe was given a Xanax to help him relax for the long trip ahead. At some point, Briscoe began developing an allergic reaction to the medication. His left eye had become totally swollen. Once the paramedic noticed after the donut stop, he didn’t seem to want to be bothered with it so he gave Briscoe some oxygen and told the driver to just “hurry the $&@! up and get to Houston.” He never called for medical direction or offered any treatment.
Hours later, Briscoe arrived at St. Luke’s for treatment. Once in the ICU the doctor ordered treatment for the allergic reaction and a barrage of tests. From there, Briscoe knew that he was in good hands and that his wife’s comfort and his care would finally be left in good hands.
But what about all of the delays, mistakes and problems that Briscoe faced back here in Corpus Christi? Was this an oversight, a failed system or worse yet—gross negligence on several parts? Are Corpus Christi residents really in the best possible hands when it comes to healthcare?
Briscoe’s story as it turns out is far from an anomaly and medical transfers to places several hours away such as Houston and San Antonio happen more often than many realize. The overall statistics are frightening and the cause for concern is purely justified by area residents and those who come into the area to work or visit.
“You often find that despite the exterior the hospitals in Corpus Christi leave plenty to be desired,” said Aiden Lang, a Houston based medical manager said. “What Mr. Briscoe and his family experienced was probably an extreme case, but I’m not at all shocked.”
In fact, Corpus Christi is faced with more than one dilemma when it comes to healthcare. The top two being the lack of available resources and the lack of full-time specialists who can use those resources.
“In this case and many more like this, the patient does not have the ideal specialist available here in Corpus Christi,” Lang pointed out. “Obviously, Mr. Briscoe is a bigger guy, so a helicopter is usually immediately ruled out. A 250 pound weight limit is about the maximum and that is pushing it.”
In Corpus Christi, a sizable number of the population is considered to be obese and weigh well over the weight limit for a helicopter, Lang adds. Rendering that an almost useless service during an emergency.
Fixed wing aircraft for medical transport needs are in high demand, says Lang and that in itself poses risks and cost.
“It’s likely that had a fix-wing aircraft been available he would have been transported using that method,” said Lang. “But again, it’s just not common practice in Corpus Christi.”
“But then again, would you trust your life to South Texas Air-Med EMS? I wouldn’t,” Lang says.
But other experts say that in a modern world and a metropolitan area the size of Corpus Christi, resources and skilled professionals should be readily available.
Garret Pugh, a healthcare budget manager in San Antonio points out that the problem is not that simple and that solution is even more complex.
“When it comes to healthcare, Corpus Christi is just not where most medical professionals see themselves,” says Pugh. “Like anybody else, they go where the jobs and money are.”
Those places are San Antonio and Houston. While there are plenty of nurses coming out of school in Corpus Christi area, very few are staying here to practice. Even more so, highly skilled professionals such as doctors and specialists like in Briscoe’s case an interventional neurologist, are just not attracted to Corpus Christi because the equipment, resources, salary and opportunities are better in places such as Houston.
“We spend billions ramping up construction on places like Christus Spohn, but in the end you see how vulnerable we really are,” says Briscoe. “We are a booming city living like we have hyper rural healthcare. That is appalling.”
For Briscoe it seems to have worked out for the better. He is back in Corpus Christi and slowly engaging himself back into work. But how many others have not been so fortunate and how many others may have died because of the lack of resources and capable specialists?
“Sadly, we don’t know those numbers,” says Lang who admits that Corpus Christi is facing a mega sized healthcare issue. “But certainly, the health district and local providers need to do something to really modernize the accessibility issue to healthcare in Corpus Christi.”
Lang and Pugh agree that it is going to take some out of the box thinking and creative problem solving to place Corpus Christi residents in a better spot when it comes to accessing medical professionals and making the market attractive for them.
“Corpus Christi will never compete with San Antonio or Houston. But they at least need to try,” says Pugh. “What we see with all of that construction and remodeling is purely cosmetic or a general facade and that is putting people at risk.”
*Disclosure: Matt Briscoe does serve as managing editor and publisher of the Southside Light News.