When the right side of Rodney Doyle’s body went numb on Aug. 26, he knew he was having a stroke. His wife called to have an ambulance sent to their home in St. Lawrence, on Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, but there wasn’t one available.
It was already taking another person to the hospital, and the nearest emergency room in St. Lawrence was closed, Doyle, 52, told CBC News in a recent interview.
His son and brother were left with little choice but to load him into a truck and start the 30-minute drive to the next nearest emergency room in Burin.
“It was a very scary situation at the time because I knew what was happening to me,” Doyle said.
Doyle says he’s had prolonged health problems over the past few years and the situation also frightened his wife.
“We just didn’t know if I was gonna make it to Burin in time or not,” he said.
Doyle said they put the ambulance on the highway when it was halfway back to St. Lawrence, after the crew dropped the first patient at the hospital.
“I had to be lifted back out of the truck, put on a stretcher and brought back to Burin hospital,” he said.
“It was a very horrible night.”
Crisis of consistency
St. Lawrence Mayor Kevin Pittman calls the situation a “horror story,” and he fears the outcomes will get uglier if access to emergency health-care services isn’t restored.
“We haven’t seen it yet, but I will guarantee you over the next while if this continues, we are going to have a death and that death is going to be caused by lack of service here in St. Lawrence,” said Pittman , who says their emergency services have been dwindling since the end of July.
There’s a crisis of consistency at the emergency room in St. Lawrence, which has been closed sporadically for almost 70 days since July 20. The ER is closed a mixture of days and nights and has been shuttered more than it’s been open.
It’s one of about a dozen rural ERs in the province that have been dealing with periodic closures due to staff shortages since the summer.
Every time St. Lawrence’s ER closes, said Pittman, he feels helpless.
He said his fears are compounded because there is only one full-time ambulance in the town, which makes for a harrowing situation when two emergencies crop up at once, as when Doyle had his stroke.
He says town council has asked Eastern Health for a second ambulance. In a statement to CBC News, the regional health authority said they have funded a second ambulance to operate in off-hours when the ER is closed.
But like the town’s emergency services, Pittman said, that coverage has been sporadic because there aren’t always paramedics available to work when the extra coverage is needed.
On top of that, Pittman said, when the ER is closed, ambulance transport times to the hospital in Burin are longer. He says ambulances from their town respond to calls as far away as Lamaline — 40 kilometers away — which takes the ambulance out service for up to two hours.
Fears for ER’s future
Meanwhile, Pittman has another beef with Eastern Health.
He says the health authority is doing a poor job of publicizing the patchy emergency room service and it’s confusing residents and causing grievance.
Many in the town of about 1,200 people are seniors, noted Pittman; some are not connected to the internet and don’t always see notifications about ER closures. Others don’t have transportation and their only way to a hospital is by ambulance, he said.
Pittman worries his town’s hospital is heading toward a total shutdown.
“Eastern Health keeps telling us, ‘Well, your numbers are going down at St. Lawrence.’ Well, I can tell you why our numbers are going down,” he said. “Once our residents have an emergency, they never know if the hospital is open or it isn’t open for emergencies, so they’re taking the nearest ambulance to Burin to get their care as quick as they can.”
There were once two doctors and about a dozen nurses at the US Memorial Health Center, he said, which has now been whittled down to one doctor and four nurses due to staff shortages.
Pitman says earlier this month Eastern Health struck a deal with staff that would see the ER open five days a week, with closures on Tuesdays and Thursdays until the first week of December. But that arrangement soon fell through, he said.
“They were going to base their emergency care … on the schedule of one nurse who had come out of retirement to help,” he said.
“While they tell us they’re doing their best to recruit … we haven’t seen any, any positive news,” he said.
‘Any problem can be solved’: Doyle
Doyle says his health has improved and he’s waiting for insurance approval for a new and expensive drug to manage his cholesterol.
He feels lucky he made it, but fears something tragic will happen to someone else in the community.
“I mean, you’re playing with people’s lives,” he said.
Eastern Health says it wasn’t aware of the situation Doyle described.
“However, we are committed to working with the town and ambulance provider in the area to ensure safe, quality patient care to residents in the area,” it said in a statement.
Eastern Heath says it doesn’t plan to permanently close the St. Lawrence ER and it’s trying to find more staff.
“Recruitment for physicians and nurses at US Memorial Health Center in St. Lawrence is ongoing in order to stabilize the workforce and have consistent services at the site,” it said.
But it’s not clear when any relief will come, and Doyle has some advice to Eastern Health when it comes to recruiting health-care staff.
“If you try hard enough, any problem can be solved.… Make the right offers to them,” he said.
“Someday, somebody may pay with their life … then [it’s] too little too late.”
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