With their father on life support, a Labrador family calls for review of air ambulance system

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With their father on life support, a Labrador family calls for review of air ambulance system

Howard Russell’s son, Clifford Russell, says his father waited for a medevac for almost 36 hours. (Submitted by Mallory Harrigan)

A Labrador family is calling for systemic change to the province’s air ambulance system following an ordeal that left their father on life support, after he waited almost 36 hours for medical transportation.

Clifford Russell says his 73-year-old father, Howard Russell of Port Hope Simpson, went to a nursing station in that community at 9 a.m. Friday because he had an infection in his leg.

“This is all just crazy. This is what we got to go through to get someone out. If you get sick on the coast, they just don’t care,” said Clifford Russell on Saturday.

Russell says the lone nurse called for a medevac right away, but it never arrived, and his father spent nearly 30 hours lying on an exam table because the clinic does not have a bed.

Russell says he feared his father wouldn’t survive. His father has complex health issues: diabetes, kidney function of just 12 per cent, and congestive heart failure.

We need to speak out. Something needs to be done.– Cliff Russell

“He’s not a healthy man,” said Russell, who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Around 6 p.m. on Friday, when the air ambulance hadn’t shown up, Russell said, the nurse called to inquire about it. He says she was told the team wasn’t coming because they’d exhausted their flying hours.

Russell said the situation has left him and their family “very frustrated.”

Turbulent, complicated process

The family says their father was bounced around multiple communities over the weekend while waiting to be airlifted to the Health Sciences Centre.

Russell said his father was driven in an ambulance to a clinic in Forteau, about a three-hour drive from Port Hope Simpson, on Saturday afternoon. A Twin Otter air ambulance arrived to take him to Labrador City to start dialysis, Russell said, but his father wasn’t prepared for the procedure and there isn’t a nephrologist in Labrador West to prepare new patients. 

Howard Russell is pictured with his wife, Dorothy Russell. (Submitted by Mallory Harrigan)

After that, the family says their father was put back in an ambulance and driven to Blanc-Sablon, Que., where he was finally airlifted to St. John’s around 7 p.m. Saturday.

By Sunday afternoon, Howard Russell was at the Health Sciences Centre — on life support and septic due to the infection, a situation the family says could have been avoided if there had been swifter action. 

‘Shouldn’t have to fight so hard’

Clifford Russell says the family asked if a search-and-rescue team or the coast guard could help but they were denied because of impending bad weather.

“It don’t give me much confidence in the coast guard,” said Russell, who fishes along the Labrador coast. 

The family contacted their MHA, Lisa Dempster — also the minister of Labrador affairs — and MP Yvonne Jones, seeking help and clarity on the situation.

“We shouldn’t have to fight so hard for him to be picked up by medevac,” said Russell’s partner, Mallory Harrigan. 

“Why there was no night shift? Or why isn’t the medevac a 24-hour service all of a sudden?” she said.

The family says their frustrations are compounded because it would have been quicker to have an ambulance drive Howard Russell to Happy Valley-Goose Bay’s hospital, rather than wait for one of the province’s two air ambulances, stationed in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and St. John’s — but they were told there were no beds available at hospitals in Happy Valley-Goose Bay or in St. Anthony, so the medevac couldn’t take their father to those hospitals. 

Clifford Russell and Mallory Harrigan say something needs to be done about the air ambulance system. People have to wait too long for it to come, they say, while their health deteriorates. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

“None of it makes sense,” said Russell.

Harrigan noted a medevac is an air ambulance, and asked whether someone who showed up at the St. Anthony hospital in a ground ambulance would have been turned away.

“There’s been so many community members lost on the coast … not getting the care that they need at the hospital and then dying before they make it to St. Johns,” said Harrigan.

Russell said he’s already had an uncle and an aunt die as a result of delays in getting airlifted to get medical care.

“It’s just too late, just way too late,” Russell said. “We need to speak out. Something needs to be done.”

Clifford Russell says his father resettled from his home in William’s Harbour to Port Hope Simpson for better access to health care. But Russell says he believes his father would have been airlifted quicker if he still lived in William’s Harbour. (Submitted by Mallory Harrigan)

Russell says his father was resettled from William’s Harbour in 2017 so he could have better access to health care.

“But in Port Hope, where he thought he would get better care, they put him in the clinic and they just left him there. They did nothing,” he said of the medevac system.

In an email on Saturday, Dempster said she can’t speak about individual circumstances.

“But I can say unequivocally a review of existing health-care Delivery in Labrador is at the top of my priority list. We can do better and we must do better,” she wrote.

A statement from Labrador-Grenfell Health says the health authority takes concerns seriously and investigates concerns about care. 

“When a patient’s needs exceed the clinical resources within the Labrador-Grenfell Health region, they are then transferred to a facility which can provide higher levels of care within another health authority in the province,” reads the statement.

“Transfers of patients are co-ordinated by the patient’s care team and the facility which they are being transferred to, in consultation with the provincial medical transportation team.”

In a statement, Eastern Health, which runs the provincial air ambulance service, says medevac wait times can be affected by weather and “rest periods for the air team which are mandatory by Transport Canada.”  The health authority says medevacs are arranged once a bed is a available and the receiving facility advises it is ready for the transfer.

Russell says Labradorians need to be treated fairly and have better access to medical care when they need it, adding his father knew his health was declining.

“He figured if he was closer to a clinic he would have a better chance if he ever got sick. And he got sick — and this is his better chance.”

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