British Columbia

Alberta tourist alarmed by ambulance response time in B.C.

Two women from High Prairie, Alta were travelling B.C.'s Alaska Highway when one of them had a stroke. What followed, they say, was nearly 24 hours of frustration and fear trying to get the patient from one hospital to another.

Nearly 24 hours of frustration and fear prompt complaint to B.C. Emergency Health Services

A patient is transferred from one ambulance to another outside a Wonowon rest stop, between Fort Nelson and Dawson Creek. (Tammy Kaleta)

An Alberta woman is raising alarms about emergency response times in northern British Columbia after her traveling companion suffered a stroke and wasn't able to receive the care she needed for nearly 24 hours.

Tammy Kaleta was traveling with her friend, Patricia Capewell, on a "bucket-list" trip along B.C.'s Alaska Highway to Dawson City.

On August 21, the pair were stopped for the night at the Double G Service Motel, approximately three hours outside of Fort Nelson. Kaleta says she awoke early in the morning to the sounds of Capewell having a stroke and tried to call 911, but there was no service.

"I realized I needed to get to a pay phone, and I needed to get some help," Kaleta said. She woke up other people at the motel, and while some attempted to help Capewell, the owner called for an ambulance, which she says arrived roughly three-and-a-half hours later.

Kaleta got in her truck and followed the ambulance to Fort Nelson. She was surprised the siren was never turned on, and even more surprised when, an hour into the trip, the ambulance pulled into a gas station. 

I thought, 'My friend is dead ... my friend has already passed away- Tammy Kaleta

"Here [the ambulance attendant] is paying for coffee and getting muffins," Kaleta said, adding she estimates they were stopped for 20 minutes before getting on the road again.

"I thought, 'My friend is dead ... my friend has already passed away,'" Kaleta said. "Because there was simply no urgency ... to get her to the hospital."

CT scan needed, but no ambulance available

She didn't find out Capewell was still alive until they arrived at Fort Nelson General Hospital after 11 a.m. PT, over six hours from the time the ambulance was first called. 

Tammy Kaleta says she had to wait close to nine hours before her friend could be transferred from hospital in Fort Nelson to Dawson Creek, where she could receive the CT scan needed to properly diagnose her stroke. (Tammy Kaleta)

Capewell's frustrations didn't end there, either.

"The emergency staff there said she needs to get to critical care fast, because we've missed the six-hour window," Kaleta said.

She was told Capewell would need to go to a hospital with a CT scanner in order to determine where the stroke had occurred and what sort of damage it might have inflicted. 

At this point, B.C.'s Patient Transport Network, responsible for moving patients from one hospital to another, was brought into the equation.

Kaleta says an air ambulance was called to transport Capewell to Dawson Creek, but hours later, there was still no sign the trip was going to happen.

"The nurses on the shift change suggested that I don't hold my breath if I'm waiting for an air ambulance," Kaleta said. "They were just as frustrated as I was." 

By six o'clock, Kaleta discovered her friend was able to walk and go to the bathroom herself, so with the encouragement of some of the hospital staff, she decided she would drive her the next 450 kilometres to Dawson Creek herself.

Preparations were made, and at around nine at night, Kaleta was ready to leave when word came a ground ambulance would be dispatched instead. The pair finally arrived at Dawson Creek Hospital at around 3 a.m. PT, nearly 24 hours after an ambulance was first called.

'They'll get to us when they feel like it': Fort Nelson mayor

Fort Nelson mayor Bill Streeper said he's heard about Kaleta's case and while it is worrisome, it is not unusual. 

Fort Nelson mayor Bill Streeper. (Northern Rockies Regional Municipality)

"This is not new. This has happened quite a bit," he said. "It's like we're a little northern community, and they'll get to us when they feel like it."

Streeper said he's had complaints about people having to wait hours at a time to be transferred for everything from strokes to heart attacks.

The municipal council has gone so far as to arrange for a local charter service to be on standby in order to transfer patients, rather than rely on air ambulance, but Streeper says they haven't been able to convince the province to endorse the plan.

"The air ambulance people say, 'well, we've got it covered with the way that we're operating.'"

Emergency Health Services investigating

Jodi Jensen is chief operating officer for B.C. Emergency Health Services, which oversees both the B.C. Patient Transportation Network and B.C. Ambulance.

She says a review into Kaleta's complaints have been launched, and the service takes all concerns seriously. She said while it is too soon to speak about the specifics of the case, a preliminary review indicates the patient was transferred within a 24- hour period, which would meet the recommended time frame.

Speaking to more general complaints about response time in the Fort Nelson region, she said, B.C. Ambulance uses a combination of dedicated aircraft and charter services to transport patients across the province.

"I do know that there have been some conversations with respect to the charter services in that corner of the province," she said.

"We are continuing to explore all of those options to ensure that we are well positioned to provide responsive air service when it's needed."

Formal complaint filed

Kaleta, however, feels the wait time she dealt with was unacceptable and has filed a formal complaint. She hopes if nothing else, it will draw attention to the needs of emergency providers in Fort Nelson.

"They were struggling, just as much as I was," she said of the staff at the Fort Nelson hospital. "That's sad. When they know their own province doesn't have their back ... it just felt like it was falling on deaf ears." 

She said the need for better service is especially acute given the importance of tourists, like herself, to the region.

Meanwhile, both Kaleta and Capewell are back in High Prairie, where Capewell is receiving care and taking speech therapy to recover from the stroke which damaged a portion of her left brain.

"She is at home and she is recovering," Kaleta said. "God is good." 

The estimated driving time from Muncho Lake, where Capewell had her stroke, to Dawson Creek is approximately seven-and-a-half hours. It took nearly 24 hours for Capewell to make it there using B.C. Emergency Health Services.


To hear the full story, click on the audio labeled: Alberta tourist alarmed by ambulance response time in B.C. and Fort Nelson's mayor is demanding answers after B.C. ambulance delay

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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

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