Paramedic shortages hurting harder in northern B.C.

Paramedic shortages hurting harder in northern B.C.

Province-wide paramedic shortage between 20 and 30 per cent, affecting communities with little full-time emergency support

By the time George Brown walked into Fraser Lake’s weekday community health clinic on Nov. 15, he’d fallen three times in 36 hours. The left side of his mouth hung heavier than normal, his left foot dragged as he walked, and he’d lost use of his left hand.

His wife, Heather, had brushed off his first two falls a couple days earlier. George was fit for 83 — he had been cutting wood behind the house that week and was known for hauling 100-pound logs into his truck. But after tumbling twice more on Sunday, they went for help.

The doctor at the clinic told George he’d likely suffered a stroke, according to Heather, and that he needed to get to Prince George for a CT scan.

But Fraser Lake didn’t have an ambulance available. With the village situated on the edge of Highway 16, one of Canada’s most treacherous corridors, Heather wasn’t prepared to make the two-hour drive.

So the couple went home, Heather on the phone trying to get her husband a ride.

“I tried everyone I could think of, but no one wanted to take George in their vehicle in case he took another stroke,” Heather said.

George fell twice more that day, and by evening Heather called 911. At 7 p.m., he was taken by ambulance to St. John Hospital in Vanderhoof.

By virtue of the vast landscape of northern B.C., emergency response-time targets for remote communities is 30 minutes or less and under 15 minutes for most rural areas, according to B.C. Emergency Health Services.

In Fraser Lake, which is deemed a remote community, the BCEHS said the average response time for an immediate life-threatening or time-critical emergency was 18 minutes and 29 seconds over the last 12 months. But it’s unclear what condition category George was assigned that day in the clinic.

But paramedic shortages, which have been one of B.C.’s and Canada’s chronic issues throughout COVID-19, have made emergency response in northern B.C. an increasingly precarious balancing act. As of late November, B.C. paramedics have been understaffed by between 20 and 30 per cent, according to Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C.

Common in the region, similar in size to France, is a community-reliant system in which a few full-time paramedics are stretched between areas. In worst-case scenarios, paramedics dart to one community, leaving another vulnerable in the event of an emergency despite available ambulances waiting idle.

Much of the problem is attributable to the province’s on-call system, according to Clifford, which he called “really not sustainable anymore.” B.C.’s northern communities widely rely on the on-call structure, whereas urban centres are staffed with full-time paramedics

Currently, on-call paramedics are paid $2 an hour, upgrading to a regular hourly wage only when they tend to an emergency. Due to the unpredictable — and sometimes infrequent — nature of emergencies in smaller populations, many with qualifications opt for more reliable sources of income, Clifford said.

Emergency Health updated its staffing model in October with a new scheduled on-call system, which combines full-time and on-call pay and includes benefits. As of Oct. 1, it has committed to hiring 200 regular part-time scheduled on-call positions specifically to address emergency coverage in northern B.C. The BCEHS told Postmedia News that it’s making the “biggest hiring push in its history,” including creating funding this summer to allow 24 rural ambulance centres to operate around the clock.

The structure aims to address paramedic shortages, which Clifford said have been occurring for a decade but accelerated over the pandemic. More, he said, 100 paramedics and dispatchers were terminated after the Oct. 26 vaccination deadline for failing to get vaccinated.

The two major changes that Clifford advocates are sustainable and competitive pay models and addressing psychological injuries among paramedics that create high levels of turnover. Particularly after this summer’s heat dome that killed nearly 600 people, reining in paramedic shortages can’t come fast enough.

“Nothing we do will be quick enough to get us out of this,” Clifford said.

Sarrah Storey, mayor of Fraser Lake and former president of the North Central Local Government Association, said the need for support couldn’t be more urgent in northern B.C.

“I run into people all over the place, and they’re telling me the same thing that you know, the system is broken and it needs a complete overhaul,” she said.

For George, life is being played out on new terms. With no feeling on his left side, he now has a wheelchair that tilts up-and-down, and George will be moved to long-term care when he leaves the hospital.

Yet, Heather said he’s still retained his sense of humour. He’s still the man she’s loved for decades.

“Yesterday, I told him, I said, ‘You know what? I said you still make my heart sing.’

“I’m really sad that this has happened. He didn’t deserve this.”