AUSTIN (KXAN) — “Early Monday, power shut down for many Austinites. I jumped on an ambulance to start responding to emergency calls at around noon. While our shift started at 10 a.m., the ambulance had been t-boned by a vehicle that lost control.”
This is the beginning of Selena Xie’s open letter detailing Austin-area medics’ experience during the deadly winter storms last week.
Xie is the president of the Austin Emergency Medical Services Association. Calls tripled for medics and other first responders as Central Texans dealt with treacherous roadways and failing infrastructure.
“My first patient who told me that he thought he was going to die, and he was telling me to put him out of his misery, because of the lack of oxygen,” Xie told KXAN.
In her letter, she recounts her third patient: “Our third patient was on hospice and expected to die in a few days at home comfortably surrounded by loved ones. When his oxygen that was making him comfortable went out, he started making awful grunting sounds. It is not acceptable to die like that, in agony. We had no other options at the time than to take the person to the hospital to keep him comfortable, but not before we let his wife cry against his chest for five minutes, which was all we felt comfortable sparing at the time.”
On top of weather-related calls, medics also responded to an overdose call. In her letter, Xie explained a young woman was “brought to her limit living in her freezing vehicle that had run out of gas.”
After that, carbon monoxide calls started coming in.
“People choosing between freezing and burning furniture to keep their families warm causing carbon monoxide poisoning. As the next days approached, we would see our infrastructure fall like dominos — a freeze meant no power. No power meant no water, no gas, no power or water meant different types of medical emergencies to follow,” Xie explained in her letter.
Xie said those included emergencies involving some methadone and dialysis clinics which had to close.
On Wednesday, Xie worked to get food for EMS crews who were stranded at work. As she was getting food, she said she got a call about a person’s cousin who had died, and 911 said there were no resources to take the body away.
“He didn’t know what to do. I told him his options were to wait or put the body in his vehicle and drive it to a funeral home if it was safe. I cried in my car for an hour after that. I told someone to load their loved one’s body in a car and take it to a funeral home. And honestly, that wasn’t the best advice, but that was the best I could do, and I couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth in this city, in this country,” Xie wrote in her letter.
Xie said the winter storm was and continues to be a humanitarian crisis, and she hopes sharing her letter gives a voice to not only medics, but vulnerable populations.
“For people to understand the domino effect that happens when we have an emergency,” Xie told KXAN, “and how many people are extremely medically vulnerable and need all of the basic systems to be working in order to live.”
Austin Fire Department
Austin fire specialist Kevin Horton worked 120 hours straight during the winter storms. He remembers working a fire on 12th Street in Austin, where crews pulled three people out of a home. That was just one of more than 5,500 calls Austin firefighters responded to during the storm.
Lt. Brent Sjolseth (Engine 11/C shift) shared photos of his crews’ experience during the storm.
“I guess including late shift changes, I only worked 103 hours, and only 53 were consecutive during this week-long event. Many worked two or three shifts more than I did. These pictures don’t even come close to a full representation of what crews dealt with. These were taken when things had briefly calmed, and I got a chance to snap a pic,” explained Sjolseth.
On Feb. 14, members of AFD also saved thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses that were at risk of going to waste.
The Austin EMS Association mobilized at the beginning of the storm to raise money and deliver 1,800 meals to first responders, hospital staff and local shelters. They have a winter storm relief fund to help medics affected by the storm.