British Columbia·SITUATION CRITICAL

Woman died of cardiac arrest in B.C. Interior town where ER was closed, only ambulance was half an hour away

The mayor of Ashcroft, B.C., is raising major concerns about health-care staffing shortages after a local woman who found her friend unresponsive was told by 911 operators that the only ambulance on call was a half-hour drive away.

Ashcroft's only ambulance stationed 50 km away due to staffing challenges; local ER also closed

Interior Health says periodic short-term emergency department closures are not uncommon at rural sites. (Interior Health Authority )

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

A stylized phrase reading 'SITUATION CRITICAL', made to read like a red heartbeat monitor.
(CBC)

The mayor of Ashcroft, B.C., is raising major concerns about health-care staffing shortages after a local woman who found her friend unresponsive was told by 911 operators that the only ambulance on call was a half-hour drive away.

The incident happened Sunday after Ashcroft resident Debbie Tuohey visited her friend, a senior who CBC is not naming out of respect for her privacy, and found her unresponsive in her home.

Tuohey said she called 911 and found that the community's only ambulance was stationed in Clinton, about 50 kilometres north, because of staffing challenges.

The woman died, despite Tuohey's efforts to save her. 

"I did do CPR on her, but unfortunately was not successful in saving her life," said Tuohey, who later found out her friend had suffered a cardiac arrest.

The emergency department at Ashcroft Hospital and Community Health Care Centre had also been closed over the weekend due to limited physician availability, according to Mayor Barbara Roden.

Had ambulance service been running at regular levels, the closest hospital open would have been the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, over an hour's drive away — and currently facing its own staffing challenges.

 

In a statement, B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) confirmed it received a call on July 17 at 11:23 a.m. PT to respond to a patient at a residential complex in the 700-block of Elm Street — the same block the hospital and ambulance station are located on. The ambulance and paramedic crew didn't arrive on scene until 11:50 a.m.

"You hear about the continued closures … and this really hits home what that means, which is that a resident in Ashcroft, who literally lived a stone's throw from a hospital, could not have got any help," Roden told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

"I think it's probably the worst fears of a lot of people."

BCEHS said they are currently facing staffing challenges but are actively making changes to improve and stabilize staffing.

"We know it is stressful waiting for an ambulance and we will be reviewing this call given the lengthier response time for this type of call," said a BCEHS spokesperson.

Hospital closed due to staffing issues

Roden said local firefighter first responders were also called to respond to Tuohey's 911 call, but they aren't qualified to perform the same level of emergency care.

She said the state of health-care in Ashcroft and surrounding communities keeps getting worse, and more needs to be done to address the issue. In the meantime, she said she also wants Interior Health to better communicate closures and delays to the public.

"We need to be doing a better job of communicating to our residents what is going on in their health-care system," Roden said.

According to data verified by CBC News, hospitals in the province's Interior have experienced the most emergency room closures this year, and most closures occurred in hospitals outside urban centres.

Staffing shortages have been worsened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

 

A spokesperson for Interior Health told CBC they are working to do everything they can to address service disruptions and keep patients safe.

"The plain truth that we're hearing from mayors all around this region is that health care is collapsing and in this part of the world that people can't get care, that people are dying because they can't get an ambulance," said Carl Meadows, Interior Health executive director of clinical operations for the Thompson Cariboo.

He admitted that Interior Health may not have hit the mark on communication, and said it is good feedback for them to hear those concerns.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brittany Roffel is a digital journalist with CBC Vancouver. Get in touch with her on Twitter at @BrittanyRoffel or at brittany.roffel@cbc.ca.

With files from Akshay Kulkarni, Jenifer Norwell and Daybreak South

now