One of the most frightening times in a person's life is a medical emergency that strikes with little or no warning. When that happens, we don't get to choose which ambulance takes us to the hospital or which medic treats us; we have to trust that both the people and the equipment sent to save our lives is working properly.
"I was, for all intents and purposes, dead," said Kenny Dodgen, a Fort Bend County deputy constable. "I've now been affectionately called 'zombie cop' by all the guys I work with."
Dodgen suffered a heart attack last November while camping at the Texas Renaissance Festival. His girlfriend, Breanne Steiger, was with Dodgen when he suffered his heart attack.
"I saw the love of my life walking out of my life," said Steiger, who is a dispatcher for the Stafford Police Department.
Dodgen has no recollection of the incident, only that crushing chest pains woke him up just after 4 a.m. Festival organizers paid for a private ambulance service to be stationed at the campground during overnight hours. Steiger said Dodgen walked to the ambulance for help as friends woke her and alerted her to the emergency. Paramedic Robert Berleth and EMT Intermediate Mathew Fletcher staffed the ambulance the morning of Dodgen's emergency.
"As a member of the public you immediately recognize, 'there's my help'," said Steiger, referring to the ambulance stationed at the campground.
Steiger was allowed to ride in the back of the ambulance during the transport from the campground to Tomball Regional Medical Center, which is approximately a 20 mile trip. Steiger said Dodgen's condition quickly worsened as Berleth attached a device to him called a "Life Pack 10." This device monitors heart rhythm and can deliver a shock to help get a person's heart beating again.
"I could see Kenny's heart beat going faster and faster and faster and faster," said Steiger. "The only thing I could do was hang on to him and tell him I loved him."
Shortly after the ambulance left the campground, Dodgen's heart stopped. He had no pulse.
"He grabbed the defibrillator and put the paddles on him and tried them twice and nothing happened," said Steiger.
Berleth did shock Dodgen twice, but when he tried to deliver a third shock to get his heart beating the device malfunctioned.
"(He) dug in his pocket, pulled out his cell phone and called 911," said Steiger, recalling Berleth's actions.
Local 2 Investigates obtained an audio recording of the 911 call Berleth made after the "Life Pack" ceased to function and Dodgen was still in a state of cardiac arrest.
"Montgomery County 911, do you need police, fire or ambulance," a dispatcher is heard asking Berleth.
"I need an ambulance, I'm southbound on 1774," said Berleth as he gave the dispatcher the direction of travel. "I need the closest ambulance that's closest to 1774, my AED is not working."
"He's dying and I'm thinking, 'why are you on the phone?'" said Steiger.
She said she got the sense that the paramedic himself was panicking.
During the approximately three minute long 911 call, Berleth is heard telling the dispatcher the location of the ambulance as it continued down FM 1774 toward Tomball Regional Medical Center. The call ended with the dispatcher sending a Montgomery County Hospital District ambulance to intercept the ambulance transporting Dodgen.
With Dodgen still in a state of cardiac arrest, Berleth and Fletcher made the decision to pull into a Magnolia Volunteer Fire Department station located off FM 1774 on Decker Prairie Road to search for a working defibrillator. At this point Steiger recalls Berleth handing her a device called a "Bag Valve Mask", which helps push air into a person's lungs.
"My hands were shaking so bad the two pieces came apart and I couldn't fit them back together," said Steiger.
Fortunately Magnolia had the equipment to shock Dodgen again. His heart resumed beating for a short time. By now Montgomery County paramedics showed up, transferred Dodgen to their ambulance and raced him to Tomball Regional Medical Center. Dodgen wants to know why the device that was supposed to help save his life failed.
"It scares the hell out of me," said Dodgen. "I don't understand why someone would be in a position, or put themselves in a position, to help someone and not take the time to make sure they could."
Local 2 discovered that while the ambulance used to transport Dodgen belonged to Pride EMS, Berleth and Fletcher were hired by another private company called TAW Medical Consultants. Troy Wilkie owns TAW.
"He did not check off his unit like he should have," Wilkie said, referring to an inspection of medical supplies and testing of medical equipment paramedics and EMTs are required to perform when beginning their shift.
Wilkie said Berleth failed to make sure the batteries that power the "Life Pack" were fully charged. In other words, Wilkie said the device functions properly, the batteries just died. Wilkie also said Berleth did not fill out required paperwork to indicate a check of the ambulance's supplies and equipment was completed. Wilkie said he confronted Berleth about the charging of the batteries and, "he lied to me."
Wilkie said he delivered the "Life Pack" to the campground and made sure batteries were placed on the charger.
"They had some markings on it so I knew they hadn't been taken out, hadn't been changed out in the unit," said Wilkie.
"That would be completely inaccurate, the batteries were checked off at the beginning of our shift as normal," he said.
Berleth said a full inspection of the ambulance was performed at the beginning of his shift, including checking to ensure the "Life Pack" was functioning properly and the device had fully charged batteries.
"I'm a 911 paramedic. I understand the importance of having charged batteries," said Berleth.
Berleth also said he has never seen any check list placed in the back of an ambulance he was assigned to work with at the Renaissance Festival.
"I've never seen one there, I've never done one there and I can't think of any employee that's done one," said Berleth.
Berleth said the "Life Pack" in the ambulance was more than 10 years old and he believes the batteries falsely indicated a full charge.
"The longer the batteries were in service the shorter the life time gets," said Berleth.
Fletcher, who is accused of no wrong doing, also told Local 2 a complete assessment of the ambulance was conducted, including a check of the "Life Pack." Fletcher, who said he is not qualified to operate the "Life Pack," personally placed fresh batteries in the device and watched Berleth conduct a diagnostic check of the unit. Fletcher said he also believes the batteries were older and falsely indicated a full charge. Fletcher said he took the batteries off a charging station and the light was "green," indicating a full charge.
"The batteries were old, I mean what happens when you put old batteries in a flashlight, it doesn't work as well," said Fletcher.
Fletcher also said he has never seen a check list placed in an ambulance assigned to the campground.
"I've never seen one, I've worked out there for three years and never filled one out," said Fletcher.
When asked about his concerns over the age of the "Life Pack" Berleth said he believed the unit met "minimum state requirements" and performed as it should during a diagnostic test. Berleth said he would have no way knowing the batteries were falsely showing a full charge until the device was used to treat a patient.
Nonetheless, Wilkie said Berleth will no longer be used as a paramedic by his company and that he plans to file a formal complaint against Berleth with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which licenses paramedics and EMTs.
"It's a reportable incident that needs to be reported to the state," said Wilkie, referring to what he believes was Berleth's failure to charge the batteries powering the "Life Pack".
Berleth said he believes there is another reason he is being wrongly accused of not performing his duties. Harris County records show at one time Berleth owned a private medical service called Greystone Medical Services. Berleth decided to sell Greystone's assets to Pride EMS, the same company Wilkie rented the ambulance from and was stationed at the campground when Dodgen suffered his heart attack.
However, court records show Berleth sued Pride for non-payment and was awarded a $311,000 judgment by the court. Court records indicate a payment was plan was established, but in August 2011 Berleth filed an affidavit showing Pride was again not paying him the monthly installments set forth in the settlement agreement and then stopped paying all together.
Berleth was attempting to take the company in to receivership when Pride went bankrupt. As a company, Pride EMS no longer exists.
When asked if he felt uncomfortable about working in an ambulance owned by a company he was locked in a legal battle with, Berleth said he was "able to separate his duties as a paramedic from the legal battle." Berleth also said he did not know he would be working in a Pride ambulance until he arrived at the campground to begin his shift.