Medical alert system aids in emergencies, but isn’t completely flawless

Lives on the line

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2007


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  The panic button transmits a signal to this box, which automatically dials Langevin's phone in an emergency. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Joseph Langevin displays the panic button for the Lifeline emergency notification system he uses in his apartment in Soldotna. He has used the Lifeline system since 1999.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Breathing only with great difficulty, his blood pressure dropping and having passed out twice, Joseph Langevin gave the electronic medical alarm button he’d worn since 1999 its first push ever in an emergency.

The 67-year-old Soldotna resident, who lives, he said, but a stone’s throw from Central Emergency Services, expected more from the Philips Lifeline alert system than he got.

Meant to connect him immediately to a person who could make the 911 call and send an ambulance on its way, Langevin said it took a minute, maybe more, for a Lifeline monitor to answer.

“When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters,” he said.

The monitor who finally picked up didn’t alert 911 right away, but instead began asking questions. Frustrated, Langevin called 911 himself.

“How many people out there think their parents are safe with those things?” he said in an interview Friday. “It’s a crock of baloney. It took way too long.”

Charles Moore, 66, lives outside Sterling in a home off the beaten path. A diabetic who recently had a leg amputated to the knee, Moore was pushing himself out of bed and into his wheelchair one mid-January morning when the chair’s brake kicked free. The chair rolled, spilling Moore to the floor directly onto the healing stump, jamming the upper leg into his hip joint.

“It blew it to smithereens!” Moore said in an interview Thursday. “I was laying on the floor, leg pointing ways it wasn’t supposed to. There was no phone within reach and no one due to show up here until the afternoon. My leg was so contorted, I was afraid to crawl to the phone. I said to myself, ‘I guess it’s time to see if this button works.’ It did!”

Moore pushed the Lifeline alarm button he’d worn since last July and got an immediate response. He, too, had to answer questions from the monitor, but Moore said that while answering them was a bit exasperating, there were only a few and all were relevant.

“Help was on the way in a minute or two,” he said. “I was on the way to the hospital really quick.”

For anyone living alone, or even for older couples who might not be able to help each other if one of them fell or were injured, Lifeline is exactly what its name implies, Moore said.

“I sure would recommend the service. I would have been in serious trouble without it,” he said.

That any Lifeline client should have Langevin’s experience rather than Moore’s is a concern to Keri Stout, a Central Peninsula Hospital employee who has managed the local Lifeline program for the hospital for the past three years. She acknowledged hearing complaints regarding Lifeline, but rarely. CPH has 335 patients on the Lifeline alert system.

Stout explained that the Lifeline buttons worn by clients on their wrists or dangling around their necks connect to devices plugged into household phone jacks. When pushed, the alarm button activates the phone and immediately dials a monitor working at Lifeline’s headquarters in Framingham, Mass.

The devices are so powerful they can activate a phone from a block away. The household phone’s speaker allows a person to talk directly to the monitor without having to pick up the receiver. While they won’t detect a voice from as far away as a city block, clients have reported being able to make themselves understood from their backyards.


The panic button transmits a signal to this box, which automatically dials Langevin's phone in an emergency.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The questions monitors ask, Stout said, are short and to the point. They are meant to determine first if a client needs an ambulance. Monitors may ask that question two or three times, in part because many Lifeline clients suffer from varying degrees of dementia or may be very hard of hearing. It is vital to know just what the client needs. That questioning, Stout acknowledged, may very well seem time-consuming and irrelevant to someone in an emergency.

“But (monitors) need to make sure a person hears and understands,” Stout said. “The person has to request an ambulance.”

If an alert button is pushed and a person simply can’t answer, monitors will alert emergency services anyway, she said. The service also will call for police, if necessary, or call a neighbor or nearby relative to make a visit to the client if the emergency isn’t life-threatening. That kind of contact information is kept in a client’s file and is immediately available to the monitor.

Doug Maddox, a supervisor with Lifeline in Framingham, said it is normal procedure to ask if a person needs immediate help.

“If we can’t understand the person, we ask three times,” he said, adding that he fully appreciated the frustration a client in an emergency might feel about that. Nevertheless, the questions are important, he said.

“Our only function is to be his liaison to getting help,” he said.

Monitors get two weeks of classroom training and then spend several more weeks working directly with mentors, Maddox said. Then they spend additional time coupled with other monitors in a buddy system before becoming full-fledged Lifeline monitors.

About six years ago when he was working as a monitor, Lifeline served roughly 230,000 clients nationwide, but that number has grown to over 500,000 today, Maddox said.

Signing up for the program in the central Kenai Peninsula is easy, Stout said. All one need do is contact her at Central Peninsula Hospital.

“Anyone can have service if they deem they need it,” she said.

The hospital will help with the paperwork, provide and install the unit free of charge, and do all the necessary maintenance. The service costs $40 per month, a fee that is covered by some, but not all, insurance companies.

Depending on circumstances, Medicaid might cover 100 percent of the cost, Stout said. Central Peninsula Hospital also offers help to low-income residents.

The hospital periodically acquires additional units and currently has more than enough to serve its 335 Lifeline clients. Last year, Stout said, the hospital bought 67 new models, 39 of which were paid for by a $25,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation. Those will be made available to low-income clients.

Clients who may want to travel Outside can even take the units with them. Those leaving for good will have to return them to the hospital.

Stout notified the Clarion on Friday afternoon that she had contacted Langevin and determined the problem with his older unit. She said she immediately took the newest model to Langevin’s home and had it installed.

Langevin also called the Clarion to say the hospital had provided him with a new unit.

“It made a big difference,” he said, adding that he was reassured by the hospital’s quick response.

Both the Homer and Seward hospitals have their own connections to the Lifeline program and their own clients, Stout said.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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