Family members of a Greenwood man seriously injured in an accident on Interstate 65 more than three weeks ago still want to know why they didn’t get a phone call to tell them that their husband and brother was in a hospital fighting for his life.
Allen Bidwell, 37, was listed in fair condition this week at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital after a dump truck slammed into the back of his vehicle Dec. 10. Bidwell was unconscious, suffering from head and spinal injuries, and was flown to the Indianapolis hospital in a medical helicopter.
But for nearly six hours, Bidwell’s sister, Amy Bidwell, and his wife, Sherri Bidwell, didn’t know where he was and why he wasn’t answering their texts or phone calls.
They found him only after calling hospitals and the state police, Amy Bidwell said.
“Not notifying family is the wrong protocol. It seems very cold-hearted,” Amy Bidwell said. “But we didn’t hear anything all day. I get if it’s one hour after the accident. But all day? They didn’t get a hold of anyone. We found out six hours later. It’s ridiculous. I am extremely angry.”
The incident raises the question of who is responsible for notifying family members when a person is severely injured and unable to make the call. Several area police and fire departments said they looking at their policies in light of what happened to the Bidwells.
Amy Bidwell said she had been under the impression that one of the first things emergency responders do when arriving to an accident is try to get in touch with the family.
But local police and emergency workers say that isn’t the case. At nearly every fire and police department, it isn’t a priority, nor part of protocol or procedure, to notify family members of those severely injured at the scene of an accident.
When emergency workers arrive to an accident, the main priority is to rescue those involved and provide immediate care to the injured. Many times at an accident, firefighters and police might never learn the identity of the people they’re saving by the time they are on the way to the hospital, Greenwood Fire Chief James Sipes said.
Allen Bidwell’s accident could be the starting point to a change in the notification process for both fire and police departments around Johnson County.
The accident raised a red flag and brought concern to how the Greenwood Fire Department should handle similar situations, Sipes said. During the next staff meeting at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Doug Cox said, he plans to delve into the topic to see what protocol should be implemented.
If a deputy has time, he or she may check to see if the family has been notified that their loved one has been in an accident and is on the way to the hospital, Cox said. But the department has no policy that mandates trying to reach a family member to inform them of an accident or incident, he said.
One of the reasons they don’t make that call is because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, which requires hospital patients to sign a release of information for anyone calling to check on their condition.
At the hospital, if a patient is unresponsive, the condition can’t be disclosed by a hospital employee also because of the federal act, Johnson Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Casey DeArmitt said.
Without the patient signing off, no information can be shared with anyone. That means police and firefighters can’t call family members and notify them if the patient is unconscious. It’s illegal, Amity Fire Chief Jackie Brockman said.
Brockman was on the scene that day when firefighters pulled Bidwell from his car and put him into the hands of medics, who treated him in the medical helicopter.
He understood why the family was upset, Brockman said.
Amity volunteer firefighters have never notified or tried to notify a family member of a person involved in an accident, he said.
“The ball was dropped, but who dropped it, I don’t know,” Brockman said. “When we are there, our primary goal is getting the person to the hospital. There are times when we arrive to an accident, we don’t have any idea who the person is. We didn’t know this guy’s name, but six hours, the family went without knowing where he was? Something in the system needs to be fixed.”
Amy Bidwell wonders why someone didn’t look at her brother’s phone that day to look for an emergency contact or find a relative to call.
Instead, Allen Bidwell’s phone was left in his car when it was towed to a lot in Franklin. Emergency workers said they don’t even look for the person’s cellphone, let alone try to search through the contacts to find an emergency contact because they are solely focused on saving the person’s life.
Rescuing people and getting them to the hospital as quickly as possible — giving them a chance to survive — is the first and only priority at the Greenwood Fire Department, Sipes said.
Firefighters and police are aware they may be saving someone’s mom, or dad or brother, Sipes said. So he does make sure that once the rescue efforts are done, he checks in with the nurses or medics at the hospital to let them know family has not been notified and someone needs to follow up with the family, Sipes said.
But even that is a common courtesy done out of the nature of the job, Sipes said. And it’s the same at the White River Township Fire Department. Making sure that someone, whether nurses at the hospital or an officer at the scene, knows that the family hasn’t been contacted and needs to be, is a part of what first responders do, White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said.
“Once the person is cared for and on the way to the hospital, we’ll try to get a hold of the family by telling a nurse at the hospital we haven’t reached the family yet,” Pell said. “We would try to follow up to make sure someone was notified.”
At local hospitals, treating the patient and then tracking down family is usually the standard procedure. An officer or social worker usually track down family members within one to two hours, DeArmitt said.
IU Health told Allen Bidwell’s family they tried to call on the day of the accident, but the number they dialed wasn’t the right one, Amy Bidwell said. So the family didn’t know Bidwell was at the hospital until making the rounds of calls to central Indiana hospitals where they learned he was in critical condition, six hours after the accident, Amy Bidwell said.
Officials at IU Health declined to discuss details about notifying the Bidwell family and released a statement about the procedures for notifying family:
“While our medical teams focus on treating each patient that arrives in our Emergency Medicine and Level I Trauma Centers, our chaplains and social workers are there to help support and, if necessary, identify the individual being treated and to work with available resources to help establish communication with their family. While circumstances can vary depending on each individual patient case, all IU Health facilities adhere to federal guidelines that ask hospitals to make reasonable efforts to identify and promptly notify a patient’s family member or representative,” according to the statement from IU Health’s public relations coordinator Emily Garrett.
The Bidwells’ experience resonated with emergency workers, imagining the frustration the family must have gone through that day not knowing where their loved one was, only to find out he was severely injured.
The Bidwells’ experience may be a one-time, unfortunate scenario. But even just once is enough to consider re-evaluating what is done, or lack there of, to notify families, Brockman said.
“With HIPPA, if we contacted people, we could be in trouble, but we need to look into this and work together — police, EMS and fire,” Brockman said. “We need to address this and create a standard operating guideline so everyone involved knows who is going to contact the family. There has to be some kind of criteria set up.”