‘It’s a disaster:’ Deaths in North Van, Ashcroft blamed on

Hospital staff shortages have led to the closures of rural hospitals, and at least three people seeking emergency care have died in the last year.

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Health Minister Adrian Dix should resign or be fired, the B.C. Liberals said, in light of the death of a patient who spent two days on a stretcher in an overcrowded and understaffed North Vancouver hospital waiting room.

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“It’s a disaster. We have a crisis in health care, there’s no doubt about that,” said B.C. Liberal finance critic Peter Milobar. “And the only one that doesn’t seem to really want to acknowledge that is the health minister, shockingly enough.”

Milobar pointed out that after a patient died waiting in a Fredericton emergency department last week, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs fired the province’s health minister and head of the health authority.

Postmedia News learned about the death on Monday and was told Dix was unavailable for an interview all week. Efforts were still underway Friday to connect with the minister.

Multiple emergency rooms in rural hospitals have been forced to temporarily close this spring and summer due to a shortage of staff. And there have been at least three incidents in the span of a year in which people lost their lives waiting for emergency care.

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At Lions Gate Hospital, an older woman died July 11 after lying on a stretcher for at least two days in the ER waiting room, which employees say was severely understaffed. Vancouver Coastal Health said they’re now reviewing the incident.

Coastal leadership has met with the family to offer additional support and will continue to meet with them to answer any questions they have. The family has also been directed to VCH’s Patient Experience team to ensure they receive caring support.

On Sunday in Ashcroft, a woman who lives in the same block as the local hospital, which was closed at the time due to short staffing, died after she went into cardiac arrest and it took 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, according to details provided by Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden and the Provincial Health Services Authority.

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Last September, a 70-year-old patient died in the waiting room of Royal Inland Hospital’s emergency department in Kamloops. After that incident, Dix said there would be a comprehensive review of what went wrong.

Doctors of B.C. president Dr. Josh Greggain.
Doctors of B.C. president Dr. Josh Greggain. jpg

This crisis in the primary care system began before COVID-19, and there is no one simple solution, said Doctors of B.C. president-elect Dr. Josh Greggain. For example, hospitals need more nurses, doctors and allied health workers, and more long-term care beds are required to move stable elderly patients out of hospitals to ease long waits in emergency rooms.

“When terrible things happen, like what has happened in Ashcroft, in Fredericton, as well as at Lions Gate,” he said, “we need to move forward with a significant investment into our human resources, as well as our actual physical resources to ensure that these sorts of situations never happen again.”

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Greggain said he wished he could be more optimistic, but until there is systemic improvement in the health-care system, British Columbians should likely expect more ER closures and interruptions this summer.

“There’s not enough physicians. There’s not enough emergency space. There’s not enough nurses. There’s not enough family doctors. There’s not enough people getting the care that they need to either keep them out of the emergency room, or once they’re in the emergency room the system problems, including bed shortages and lack of staff, continue to plague all of the patients across the province,” he said.

It’s not just patients impacted by these shortages, but also the health-care workers in these crowded, understaffed hospital units. Adriane Gear, vice-president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union, this week visited Lions Gate nurses who are still distraught about not being able to do more to help the woman who died in their waiting room.

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“The nurses believe that this was something that could have been avoided if that patient had access to actual emergency care, which would have included being monitored,” she said. “This isn’t the first time this (a death in an ER waiting room) has happened. They don’t think it will be the last. They’re devastated.”

Gear added it’s “tone deaf” of Dix to say in earlier interviews that these shortages are due to employees calling in sick. While she acknowledged nurses do get COVID, she argued the Lions Gate ER has 30 unfilled nurse vacancies because of a lack of recruiting and retaining staff.

B.C. Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau said it’s clear every aspect of the health system, from ambulance care, to emergency rooms to primary care, has been crippled by short staffing “and the cost of that is measured in lives.”

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Furstenau and Milobar both pointed out that the B.C. Ferries’ board fired its president after ferry cancellations and underperformance but the same standard isn’t applied to health authorities or the Health Ministry.

Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden said since the death of the woman on Sunday, she’s heard from residents in the community of 1,500 who are angry that more isn’t being done to prevent the hospital’s closure. Roden spoke with Interior Health on Friday about getting consistency with their emergency department so residents don’t have to check Facebook forums to find out if it’s open.

The deaths in her community and North Vancouver should be a wake-up call to the consequences of not moving fast enough in addressing health care staff shortages, Roden said.

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“You know, we got the (hospital) facilities in a lot of communities but how do we make sure that these facilities don’t become mausoleums?”

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