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South Hills vial program can be a genuine lifesaver in emergencies

| Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, 11:01 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Bonnie Critchlow, 68 and her husband Robert Critchlow, 84 pose for a portrait at their Castle Shannon home. Bonnie Critchlow, a type II diabetic, keeps a Vial of Life bottle containing medication, health conditions and allergies for both she and her husband in their refrigerator in case of emergency.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Bonnie Critchlow, 68 of Castle Shannon a type II diabetic, keeps a Vial of Life bottle containing medication, health conditions and allergies for both she and her husband Robert Critchlow, 84 in their refrigerator at home in case of emergency.

Bonnie Critchlow was eating breakfast at her home in Castle Shannon two years ago when her blood sugar dropped to half of what it should be. She went to the bedroom and collapsed.

Fortunately, her husband and daughter were there to tell paramedics what medications she was taking. After that, she became a booster of the Vial of Life program, which puts free, oversized vials storing a person's key medical information in the refrigerator where an ambulance crew knows where to find it.

Now she and her husband, Robert, share a vial.

“I feel more comfortable that it's all written down and our community, our emergency medical technicians know,” said Bonnie Critchlow, 68. “Every community should do this.”

Vial of Life started last summer in the South Hills when Kevin's Pharmacy in Castle Shannon donated and distributed about 2,000 bottles.

“It looks like a bottle of Milk of Magnesia. Nothing else would look like this in your refrigerator. It's big enough to be noticeable, but small enough to work around,” said Thomas Tritinger, a pharmacist at Kevin's Pharmacy working to expand the program with the help of the American Red Cross, retirement homes and others.

The vials do not contain any pills, but rather sheets with such information as the name of the person's doctor, preferred hospital, health insurance, allergies, existing and previous medical problems and emergency contacts.

“It gives us a guide as to what problems they have currently and why we have to be there that particular day,” said John Moses, assistant director of Medical Rescue Team South.

Patients can tell paramedics from Medical Rescue Team South that they have a Vial of Life. If the patient is not conscious, the paramedics know that they should look in the refrigerator.

Ross/West View Emergency Medical Services has participated in a similar program for the past four years. Paramedics encourage senior citizens to enclose their medical information in a plastic bag attached by a magnet to the outside of their refrigerator. A decal attached outside the door tells paramedics to look at the refrigerator for the health information.

Scott Garing, supervisor of EMS group, said at least 1,000 people have the decals.

“Nobody thinks anything is going to happen to them, but if you're passed out on the floor ... the paramedics or first responders have an opportunity to find out what medications you are on and give you the proper treatment,” said Mike Warhold, a Castle Shannon Councilman who is president of the Castle Shannon Redevelopment Corp., which distributes medical supplies such as canes, walkers and the vials to people in need.

The American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania distributes the vials as part of its Safe Neighbors program, which prepares people for emergencies. The agency focused on getting the vials into homes of the elderly.

“Hopefully, this is something we could see happening across our entire region,” said Lauren Ashley, spokeswoman for the local chapter.

Critchlow thinks the concept is such a good idea she began volunteering for the cause. She has filled hundreds of bottles with information sheets while watching Steelers games.

“In fact,” she said last week, “I have another box in my car to fill.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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