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Nissequogue’s high-tech stretcher helps move overweight patients

More EMS departments across Long Island are buying automatic stretchers to handle a population that is getting heavier.

Shawn Edouard, a paramedic supervisor at Stony Brook

Shawn Edouard, a paramedic supervisor at Stony Brook Emergency Medicine, demonstrates an automatic stretcher on Tuesday at Stony Brook University Hospital. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

The Village of Nissequogue Fire Department is buying a $47,000 powered stretcher and ambulance load system, in part because people are getting too heavy for emergency personnel to safely lift, said Chief Russell von Frank.

The system has a 700-pound weight capacity.

Emergency medical units across the United States and Long Island have made similar purchases to automate loading a patient into an ambulance, officials said.

One factor behind the switch is the volume of calls: Medical assistance, not firefighting, now accounts for the bulk of the Nissequogue department’s work. Von Frank said the department’s 200 annual ambulance calls are increasing. He recalls going on average to one ambulance call a week when he started about 20 years ago.

“The weight gain of the population is also a factor,” he said at a May 15 village board meeting, citing a rise in morbid obesity.

“We have a lot more heavier people in the village” than when he started with the department 20 years ago, von Frank said in an interview.

The weight of Americans has been climbing for decades, data show. Average for a man is 195.7 pounds, and for a woman 168.5: roughly 5 pounds more than when von Frank joined the department and 30 pounds more than in the early 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is also on the rise, nationally and on Long Island. In 2015, according to New York State Department of Health, 56 percent to 65 percent of adults on the Island were overweight or obese.

For emergency medical workers, sprains and strains connected to overexertion during lifting are among the most common causes of on-the-job injury. In 2016, according to the CDC, injuries from lifting and other patient interactions caused roughly 3,000 emergency room visits for EMS workers.

Those injuries can be costly.

“If that happens, then we’re down a volunteer and have to go through workers’ comp,” said Huntington Community First Aid Squad Chief Casey Orr.

At Nissequogue’s May meeting, one of von Frank’s department colleagues, Desmond Murphy, said: “I was on several calls, it was just me and one EMT, and we had to haul a 300- or 400-pound guy up” into the back of an ambulance. “If my back was out, $50,000 is looking mighty cheap.”

Trustees approved the purchase that night.

“The size of Americans brought this on,” said Will Chapleau, a 41-year paramedic and director of performance improvement at the American College of Surgeons. “It got to the point where injuries began to increase along with the increasing weight of our patients. A complicating factor is that people of that kind of size tend to be sicker, so they have lots of interactions with our services.”

Stony Brook University Hospital and Northwell Health, which handle thousands of ambulance calls a month, have switched to automation. So have volunteer organizations such as the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Rescue Ambulance and Huntington, which answers 6,000 calls a year. All six of its ambulances are equipped with automatic stretchers.

“Two-hundred-fifty to 300-pound folks are very common out there,” said Eric Niegelberg, associate director of operations for emergency services and internal medicine at Stony Brook. Add to that the roughly 80-pound weight of a typical stretcher: “Without a power system, you’re asking our crews to lift 300 pounds, 400 pounds plus into an ambulance . . . We’re going to get hurt if we do that.”

Bay Shore-Brightwaters Rescue Ambulance Chief Jason Hoffman, whose team recently moved a 500-pound patient, said his department was already partly automated and hoped to switch to a fully automated system soon. “We’re looking to invest in them, but they’re very expensive. To outfit our fleet would be 15 to 20 percent of our annual budget,” he said.

Alan Schwalberg, vice president of Northwell Health’s Center for Emergency Medical Services, said his organization had seen a “significant” reduction in lost workdays since it began buying automatic stretchers about five years ago. It now owns 125. “The industry is moving that way,” he said.

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