Detroit paramedic up for promotion despite pattern of neglect

Feb 12, 2020 at 1:00 am
One Detroit paramedic, Todd Sclafani, has been the subject of at least five complaints in which patients say he mistreated them. Now he’s being considered for a promotion to lieutenant.
One Detroit paramedic, Todd Sclafani, has been the subject of at least five complaints in which patients say he mistreated them. Now he’s being considered for a promotion to lieutenant. Steve Neavling

Vanessa Baker was bent over in pain and struggling to breathe. The day before, she had suffered head and spinal injuries in a car crash. The pain was getting worse, so she dialed 911.

About 14 minutes later, an ambulance arrived at her home on Detroit's west side. Her neighbor led the two paramedics to Baker, who was still on the phone with 911.

According to a state complaint she filed and a follow-up investigation by the Detroit Fire Department, which includes the EMS division, here's what happened next:

"I'm going to need you to end your little phone conversation," one of the paramedics told Baker.

The paramedics seemed annoyed. Baker told them she wanted to go to the hospital.

"I mean, you have your pain medication. What more can the hospital do for you?" one of the paramedics asked.

Baker, who was 45 at the time in July 2016, was worried about her injuries because the pain was so intense. She began to panic and had trouble breathing because of her asthma. Unable to stand up, she reached for the wall to balance herself.

"You're going to have to walk to the ambulance," one of the paramedics told her.

Her neighbor responded, "She needs a stretcher! Can't you see how much pain she is in? And what are y'all doing about her breathing?"

The paramedics didn't bother to check her vital signs and refused to get close to her until she slowly made her way to the ambulance.

"I never felt so humiliated in all my life," Baker said in the complaint filed with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

A lieutenant who investigated the complaint for the Detroit Fire Department concluded there's "sufficient evidence" to conclude the complaint was "credible and true."

The paramedics were "disrespectful, demeaning, and unprofessional," the investigation states.

One of the paramedics, Todd Sclafani, has been the subject of at least four other complaints in which patients say he mistreated them. Now he's being considered for a promotion to lieutenant, a supervisory position that would put him in charge of other medics. If promoted, he also would handle the kind of patient complaints filed against him.

Outraged, some officials at the fire department are urging top brass to not promote Sclafani, especially since there's an internal investigation into another complaint filed against him earlier this month.

That complaint alleges that Sclafani carelessly used a wheelchair to transport a man with a serious head injury into the hospital, rather than use a stretcher to stabilize his head, neck, and body. The injury was so serious, officials said, that the man was taken to the intensive care unit for surgery. Wheelchairs are only supposed to be used in minor injuries, like a scraped knee.

Fire officials declined to comment on specific allegations, saying they don't discuss personnel issues. But they indicated that none of the complaints filed against him precludes a promotion.

"During the time of this promotional process, Mr. Sclafani had no matters barring him from promotional opportunity," Sean W. Larkins, superintendent of EMS, told Metro Times in a written statement.

"The Human Resources promotional process determines employee eligibility for promotion," he added. "Employees are vetted within the confines of the current collective bargaining agreement. At the time of vetting, Mr. Sclafani met the requirements of Human Resource eligibility. Further, the HR process dictates that any discipline that is no longer under retention cannot be considered during promotional opportunities and the Department is bound by that requirement."

Sclafani defended his record as a paramedic.

"I have never been disciplined by the department for anything significant," Sclafani wrote in a message to Metro Times. Also I HAVE received several awards for patient care from the commissioner and the hospital."

Sclafani said he couldn't address specific allegations and referred Metro Times to the Detroit Fire Fighters Association (DFFA), the union that represents medics and firefighters.

DFFA Vice President William M. Harp says Sclafani has a strong record that would suggest he'd make a good lieutenant.

"He spent years dedicated to providing advanced hospital care and has served hundreds of individuals within his role as a paramedic with the fire department," Harp tells Metro Times. "He's a good medic and has saved many lives."

Harp suggested that Metro Times was provided with complaints against Sclafani in a desperate attempt to derail his promotion.

According to the internal investigation, Sclafani has a ‘history of patient complaints that are similar to this complaint’ and had previously been charged with neglect of duty.

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The source of the complaints says the allegations and follow-up investigations speak for themselves and demonstrate a pattern of neglect and misconduct. Paramedics take an oath to "do no harm," the source says.

An internal investigation in June 2017 found that Sclafani and another medic made "significant breaches in care provided" to a 52-year-old woman who was in bed "complaining of weakness, chest pain and trouble breathing." Despite a significant drop in her blood pressure, the medics failed to perform advanced life support, such as providing oxygen, as required for her condition, "and then just proceeded to look around her house," the report states.

One of the medics told her, "You need to clean this filthy house," and both accused her of having bed bugs, according to the complaint.

"Both technicians refused to carry her even after the complaint of chest pain, weakness and trouble breathing made physical activity even worse," the report states. "Complainant said she was disrespected and verbally put down by both technicians and subsequently the hospital was given the wrong information which delayed her treatment."

The woman was in such grave condition that she ended up in ICU and had two surgeries and eight blood transfusions.

According to the internal investigation, Sclafani has a "history of patient complaints that are similar to this complaint" and had previously been charged with neglect of duty.

In the same month of the internal investigation, Sclafani and another medic were accused of mistreating a 74-year-old man who had a heart attack in the bathroom of his west-side house.

The man's wife said the paramedics were "very rude, uncaring, and neglected immediate and appropriate care to her husband," who was unconscious and unresponsive. One of the medics, she said, told her that he wasn't going to help "until I get that insurance card."

She said the medics finally dragged her husband into the living room and placed him on his back but failed to give him oxygen or check his airways, and they "looked around with no sense of urgency."

"Treatment was delayed by the crew by waiting to start an IV in the ambulance," the internal investigation found. "They administered the wrong medications ... and the wrong dosages."

The investigator recommended several charges against the medics, both of whom "have a history of patient complaints."

In 2019, a complaint with the state was filed against Sclafani because the patient had abrasions and bruises from a stretcher. That report was not available.

In an unrelated case, the Detroit Fire Department was criticized for its handling of a captain who posted nearly 200 vile, demeaning, and sometimes threatening memes and comments on social media about Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans, Asians, women, and gay people has returned to his supervisory position.

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