Despite last falls’s effort by the BC Ambulance Service to improve its service in Stewart, local residents and municipal officials say the system still lets them down.
The problem was painfully apparent to Stewart resident Maureen Tarrant on Christmas Day when the unavailability of paramedics forced her to transport her mother four hours by car 320 kilometres to Terrace to receive treatment for a heart condition.
“It was a very stressful trip,” said Tarrant. “I have ambulance experience so I was driving and holding her wrist so I could feel her pulse and my sister-in-law was sitting behind my mother with her hand on her chest to make sure she was still breathing.”
Turrant said her mother died while in care in Terrace but that having a paramedic and ambulance for the trip down wouldn’t have changed the outcome. She did say the whole ordeal caused unnecessary anguish.
“After my mom passed away I had that long trip home by myself,” said Turrant. “It would have been a safer ride out in the winter conditions in an ambulance. It’s definitely not a good situation here with our ambulance.”
BC Ambulance Service (BCAS) official Kelsie Carwithen confirmed that service gaps occurred Dec. 17-20 and again on Christmas Day.
On Dec. 19, a Stewart resident dislocated her hip and had to be transported by pickup to the Stewart Health Centre because no ambulance driver was available. An ambulance was sent up from Kitwanga, 221 kilometres to the south, and then the woman was transported back down to Kitimat for treatment.
Carwithen said that activation of the medevac air transport was attempted, but that the weather was not conducive to air transportation.
“[The BC Ambulance Service] attempted to send paramedics and a helicopter to the call but the weather was not safe to fly due to poor weather in the area at the time the call was received,” she said in an email.
Lapses in ambulance coverage last summer spurred Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson to put out a call to BC Ambulance and then provincial health minister Terry Lake demanding they enhance service in Stewart and examine the service in small communities.
In response to the situation, the ambulance service held an open house to recruit residents interested in receiving paramedic training in September and then held the training courses in October.
This led to the recruitment and training of two new emergency responders with three other part-time drivers getting their emergency responder training upgraded from driver only to hands-on emergency response status, which is one level below full-time paramedic. One of the five recently trained staff lives in Kitwanga.
Since the December service gaps, further meetings and training have been done in Stewart. BCAS also held a course on how to operate defibrillators on Feb. 5.
“A BCAS Superintendent has also visited Stewart six times since December 2013 to mentor staff,” Carwithen said.
EMRs are paid $2 dollars an hour to be on call during their shift and receive a full wage during call-outs, she added.
The part-time nature of the positions makes consistent coverage a challenge to deliver, say critics of the rural ambulance system that relies heavily on these occasional workers. This was especially true during holidays last year such as the August long weekend and Christmas last year.
According to Stewart mayor Galina Durant, having two new paramedics has improved ambulance coverage in Stewart, however driver availability is limited.
“Right now we have four paramedics and one driver. It’s still challenging because there is only one driver,” said Durant. She helped host the recruitment open house in September and has met recently with BCAS to discuss solutions.
“It’s not just our problem. It’s a problem in many small communities. It needs to be solved on the province level probably,” Durant added.
Carwithen said confirmed in fact there are two trained ambulance drivers in Stewart, but said they are not necessarily always available.
“BCAS operates one 24/7 ambulance in Stewart and receives approximately 2 calls per week. Of these, approximately 1 call every 2 weeks requires an urgent ‘lights and siren’ response,” she said.
Durant argues that having fully trained, full-time paramedics in rural locations would alleviate the need to fly in full-time paramedics during staffing shortages..
Maureen Turrant said that having the emergency centre in Stewart equipped with in-patient beds would have meant her mother could have been cared for closer to home during her final days.