Sawmill explosion a lesson in rural care

Rural hospitals are necessary for immediate emergency care.

The Burns Lake mill explosion Jan. 20 underscores the value of retaining small local hospitals. But whether MLAs will have a change of heart remains to be seen. MLAs ensconced in Victoria or anywhere large hospitals abound put dollars ahead of  prompt medical care.

Major hospitals with their electronic diagnostic equipment,  and specialists trained in the newest techniques at the best medical schools on the continent are ideal. But when you’re suffering from any emergency condition, especially a burn, what you’re praying for is a short trip to a hospital where you might be met by at least one experienced nurse brandishing a hypodermic syringe loaded with morphine.

Any emergency can be dire, but burns are one of the most painful. Every minute waiting for treatment feels like an hour.

The night of the explosion combined many variables that probably prolonged the discomfort of the injured and added to the risks of further injuries: Blizzard conditions that slowed the response of emergency vehicles (and in addition endangered the lives of responders). The 20-minute driving distance from the mill to the hospital. The explosion occurring at an hour when staffs of both the hospital and first responders were at their leanest.

Yet under a Code Orange extending from Prince George to Smithers, Burns Lake mustered staff to cope with an influx of about 25 workers seriously injured by burns, fractures, and concussions. And though flight conditions were poor, pilots were able to fly the most severely burned to Edmonton and Vancouver where burn units offer specialized care.

Any disaster triggers a complexity of urgent problems. Problems included speedily removing the burned clothing to expose the damaged area for treatment as well as to halt the burning. (Nylon garments are particularly troublesome; nylon jackets, tee shirts or gloves melt on to the skin prolonging the burning.) Administering painkillers. Treating for shock. Guarding against infection of the burned area. Hydrating the victim to replace  body fluids lost through the burn area. Quality immediate care can tilt the outcome. And even a small local hospital can provide such immediate care.

While working as a roofer in town, my husband was burned by hot tar splashed from a bucket on to his face, into one boot, and filling one glove.

Rules wouldn’t allow the ambulance attendant to remove the tar-filled glove as my husband demanded. Had his ambulance ride to Emergency been several hundred kilometers long under those conditions, he  would have suffered far more severe damage to muscles and nerves, requiring skin grafting.

Instead, driven by agony and profanity, my husband yanked off the glove himself.

Thanks to the five-minute ambulance ride, an on-call family doctor with a broad range of experience, and excellent nursing, without skin grafting he recovered full use of his hand.

Maintaining any hospital is expensive, and government is forever being asked to provide more services. But budgets need to be weighed against prompt care. When I read reports of the provincial government preparing to close another small town’s hospital I question the wisdom of our elected legislators.

The fact people live in a resource community far from the parliament buildings is no reason to treat them like second class citizens… or to have them depend on ambulances stationed miles away travelling to transport them hours to a major hospital.

Ambulances can at most transport two patients in a single trip. They are limited to one if the patient is unstable.

In an emergency, even a small hospital with an experienced nurse and doctor can be a lifesaver.


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