‘Longest night of my life:’ Family says man with broken skull waited hours for ambulance

TRINITY, Fla. — Family and friends of a man who recently suffered a fractured skull are speaking out about delays in care from a hospital they believe made his condition worse.

On what was supposed to be a fun night playing softball, Donnie Smith’s life changed forever. He’d just thrown a pitch, when a line drive hit him in the head.

“Donnie went immediately to the ground,” said teammate Bryan Williams. “Blood was coming out of his nose. You could already see the swelling.”

At that point, they knew it was bad. Another teammate took him to the nearest emergency room, which was at Medical Center of Trinity, about two miles south of the ballpark. Smith got to Trinity at 7:46 p.m.

“You figure a hospital is a hospital. It’s there to take care of emergencies,” said teammate Jimmy Sigmone.

But not all emergency rooms can handle all emergencies, as Smith’s sister Patti Dermer was about to learn. By the time she arrived, a CT scan showed his injury was potentially life-threatening.

By 8:20 p.m., they knew he had a fractured skull and a brain bleed, but doctors at Trinity couldn’t perform emergency surgery to relieve the pressure.

At 9:16 p.m., a doctor signed a transfer order, and a surgical team was placed on stand-by 13 miles away at the Bayonet Point Trauma Center.

“There were ambulances sitting outside the door, and they wouldn’t put him in it,” said Deremer.

As seconds and minutes ticked by, Smith’s condition worsened.

“He’s going gray, sweating profusely, chills everywhere,” Deremer said.

She said she was alone with him in an ER Bay for most of the time they were waiting. He was given an ice pack to hold on his head. By 10 p.m., Smith’s heart rate dropped to under 40 beats a minute.

“He wound up throwing up blood all over the room. Blood started gushing out of his nose,” Deremer said.

Records indicate the ER staff had called for a helicopter, but it couldn’t fly due to weather conditions.

“It was the longest night of my life,” Deremer said. “Literally, I was out there screaming at people.”

By 10:20 p.m., Smith’s blood pressure spiked and his pulse was dropping. The ER team rushed him to another room and put him to sleep.

Records show that finally at 10:21 p.m., the first call from Trinity was made to Pasco County EMS for an ambulance. It was two-and-a-half hours after Smith first arrived at Trinity and more than an hour after a doctor signed the transfer order.

Smith finally got to Bayonet Point at 11:25 p.m., four hours after the softball fractured his skull.

Friends said they wished they’d called 911 from the ball field, so paramedics would have taken him where he needed to go the first time.

“You can point a million fingers, but the bottom line is he should have got here hours faster than he did,” said Sigmone.

HCA owns both Trinity and Bayonet Point hospitals. HCA spokesperson Kurt Conover issued the following statement:

“Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point is a strong advocate of improving access to trauma services, bringing a much needed program to Pasco County in 2010. While we can’t discuss specific patient situations, there are a number of factors that come into play when transferring a patient from the scene of an accident or another hospital to a trauma center once the determination has been made that trauma services are needed. This includes identifying the nearest facility with expertise available to respond quickly, determining the most appropriate mode of transportation and stabilizing the patient for transport. All of these factors can change at any time and delay the transport process.”

“It breaks my heart,” said Smith’s mother Liz Smith, a former HCA employee.

“He sat there and bled more and more and more for three hours, until it got to the point that he is now,” Liz Smith said.

Smith was released from the hospital, but his brain was still bleeding, and family members said they fear he will never be the same. He has memory, speech and other problems.

“He’s got about a palm size piece of his skull removed. It’s gonna be two months before they can put that back in,” said Deremer.

“There are protocols in place, but they weren’t followed, and I’ve got a really big problem with that,” said Smith. “They should be investigated.”

The family has filed complaints with two state agencies. They’re speaking out in hopes that the next time a trauma patient needs a transfer, there won’t be delays.