‘The outcome could have been very different’

Michael Riordain’s wife died after choking on food

Michael Riordain, from Cahirciveen, Co Kerry. His wife choked to death while they waited for an ambulance to arrive from another town. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

Michael Riordain, from Cahirciveen, Co Kerry. His wife choked to death while they waited for an ambulance to arrive from another town. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus


Michael Riordain (47) knew after waiting for an ambulance for 10 minutes the outlook for his wife was “not good”.

Elizabeth (52) was choking on a piece of food and could not breathe. They were three minutes away from Kerry General Hospital in Tralee when he made the 999 call, at 3.36pm on November 24th last year.

From Direen, Cahersiveen, the couple had been in Tralee as usual on a Sunday, to do some shopping and see family. They were in Gally’s restaurant in the town when Elizabeth started choking on “some soft vegetables or mash potato”. She had had swallowing difficulties in the past.

“Liz indicated to me to tap her back. Then she indicated to do it again. Then she indicated she wanted to go out to the car. I got her into the passenger seat and then she slouched over in the car and that’s when I dialled 999.”

“I got on to the call centre, in Dublin. The chap on the other end hadn’t a clue where Gally’s restaurant was. He said to get her out of the car and put her on the ground and commence CPR [cardio-pulmonary resuscitation].

Trained in first-aid, he says he gave the phone to a passer-by to hold while he commenced CPR.”

He assumed the ambulance was coming from Kerry General and that it would be there within three or four minutes.

“Some other people had come to try to help. Three of us took turns to do CPR and after each time I asked the lady with the phone, ‘Where is the ambulance?’ All they kept telling her was, ‘It’s on the way’.

“The longer we waited I knew damage was being done. You could see cyanosis was setting in.”

Cyanosis is where the skin becomes a purple-grey colour due to an inadequate supply of oxygen.

According to the HSE, the Tralee base’s two ambulances were engaged in other calls and so the nearest ambulance was despatched from Listowel, 26km away.

‘Waiting and waiting’

“If I had known we’d be waiting and waiting

. . .” says Michael. “Sure I had her in the car when I called 999. I could have had her up to the hospital in three minutes. The outcome could have been very different. If the ambulance operator had just told us there was no ambulance nearby, called ahead and told the hospital we were on the way. The operator knew she was choking. Yes, I’m fairly angry.”

The ambulance arrived at 4.05pm. “By then, well she was gone really.” He asked the paramedics why they had taken so long.

“I was shocked when they said they had come from Listowel.”

He has sympathy for the paramedics who, he says, were efficient and professional. “They got the blockage out with suction equipment, got her into the ambulance and into A&E. I understand it’s difficult for the paramedics, doing their best in a stressful situation. It’s not their doing, these situations.”

Elizabeth Riordain died in hospital four days later, November 28th, 2013, when her life-support machine was turned off.

Minister for Health James Reilly was asked about the incident in the Dáil on January 30th, by Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae.

Dr Reilly said a National Ambulance Service review had found “it was triaged correctly, that the nearest available resources were dispatched and that the call was handled appropriately”.

Elizabeth’s family however, “all feel gutted, so let down that a frontline service was not there, in a county capital. “The Minister, Mr Reilly, really he has to realise the policies of the ambulance service aren’t working in these situations. He is going to have to review these policies.”