'We've had close calls': Why life saving drugs run low and what it means for you
Photo: Video by kgun9.com
CREATED Feb. 25, 2013 - UPDATED: Feb. 27, 2013
Reporter: Maggie Vespa
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - When you dial 9-1-1, you expect paramedics to get there with everything they need to save your life.
But how would it grab you to learn some of the drugs they rely on are in short supply? As 9OYS found out, dealing with this problem presents a constant challenge.
For emergency first responders, no two days at the office are the same.
"We wake up, and you never really know what's going to happen," said EMT Captain Scott Robb.
Photographer Alfonso Sahagun and I got a first hand look at this high-tension environment in a recent ride-along with the Golder Ranch Fire Department.
As if the daily life and death demands of this job weren't enough stress, crews also face another chronic problem.
"You hear about it more, so you're always a little bit concerned," said Robb.
That "it" refers to a shortage of the life saving drugs EMTs here and across the country store and use each and every day to treat critical conditions, such as cardiac arrests or strokes. The latest drug to run low here in Tucson was Atropine, which paramedics use to treat dangerously low heart rates.
"We've had a few close calls, and they've been closer than, I guess you could say, they have been in years past," said Robb.
Drug shortages are nothing new, but the problem escalated a few months ago. A mass menigitis outbreak forced a temporary shutdown of the east-coast pharmaceutical company Ameridose.
Experts warned at the time that the shutdown might affect emergency crews and hospitals that rely on the drugs, and they were right.
How are hospitals coping? I checked with Northwest Medical Center's director of pharmacy Ferena Salek, Pharm.D.
9OYS reporter Maggie Vespa said, "So people hear about these drug shortages. Should they be scared?"
"This has only come to the media just recently, but like I mentioned, drug shortages have been an issue for years and years and years," said Salek.
She says while the shortages haven't gotten worse on a hospital-wide level, they haven't gotten better either, and advance warning sometimes can be hard to come by; almost as hard as an explanation.
"Usually it's multifactorial," said Salek. "It's not just one cause. Anywhere from raw material shortage, to demand has changed, to the FDA regulations and changes in manufacturing."
Still, she says years of experience have led hospitals and EMT's to create a complex, critical system of checks and balances.
"It's using the evidence based information and coming up with criteria on who really needs the medication and other therapeutic alternatives for those who could use something else," she said.
Robb and his colleagues in the field engage in a similar shortage dodging dance, all to make sure they have what they need when you call 9-1-1. Case in point, remember that Atropine shortage?
Well, instead of abiding by the usual plan of replacing drugs a month before they expire, they changed their tactics.
"We took it to the last minute before we changed out those drugs and got new ones so that we could get the most out of our drug before they expired," said Robb.
With steps like that in place, Robb and Salek assured us, your odds this problem leaving you high and dry in your hour of need are extremely low. And that's comforting news to those we met on our day embedded with emergency crews, including Elizabeth Capo, who cares for her elderly grandmother.
"For her it's very important. She lives alone. A lot of other people in this community do as well," she said.
"It's very comforting to know that everyone here, our neighbors, and everybody here in Oro Valley is going to have that opportunity to be taken care of," said Lourdes Brito.
And that, says Robb, is the goal of their never ending vigilance and the drug juggling act that comes with it.
"Whether it's a really tiny emergency or catching somebody on their worst day, being able to affect some kind of positive outcome based on our presence is what really makes a difference for us," he said.
While EMT's and hosptal administrators assure the public theyr'e on top of this, knowledge is power. The FDA maintains a complete list of drugs in shortage on its website.
And when in doubt: contact your physician.