OPINION | Empty beds, but still no treatment as sick Albertans bear brunt of COVID-19 policies

Hospital beds sit empty, waiting for COVID-19 patients who haven't shown up, while thousands of Albertans wait for treatment and surgeries.

Fewer than 10% of beds set aside for pandemic were full at the peak of infections

A health-care worker collects a sample at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility in Alberta. (Alberta Health Services)

This column is an opinion from Sima Chowdhury, a social work student at the University of Manitoba, living in Calgary.

In anticipation of COVID-19 patients who never showed up, health authorities in this province made the decision to deny Albertans access to hospital and rehabilitation care.

I was one of many patients who needlessly suffered because of these policies.

Due to two separate car accidents, Alberta Treasury Board and Finance has overseen my health care over the past 4½ years, which works about as well as it sounds.

Keeping symptoms under control with minimal use of medication requires regular care and checkups from a team of health-care practitioners, including medical specialists, massage therapists, physiotherapists, doctors, dentists and psychologists.

Lawyers helped me deal with the insurance companies. To navigate the havoc COVID-19 policies wreaked on my life, I was left with just my own management skills and phone sessions with my psychologist.

Eating Tylenol like candy

Without physiotherapy and massage, I ate Extra Strength Tylenol like Skittles candy and increased my consumption of espresso beverages and dark chocolate to control the pain.

Eventually, I turned to stronger medication. In April, I refilled a prescription that I purchased in November, only to find that the price had gone up over 50 per cent. Worried about maintaining a continuous supply of pain medication and sedatives during the pandemic, pharmacies dispensed 30 days of medication instead of 90 days, which had the effect of tripling dispensing fees. 

Because the province closed hospital clinics, the physiatrist from the Foothills brain injury centre and I had a phone consultation about my constant headaches, jaw pain and my coping strategies. We concluded the increased pain was partly caused by the stress of COVID-19 policies restricting visits to my mother in palliative care.

She offered injections to cranial nerve clusters to help the headaches. Not familiar with the risks, I opted to wait until I could access physiotherapy and the dental specialist, uncertain when that would happen.

To better understand how COVID-19 policies have affected brain injury patients, she invited me to participate in a research project. For 90 minutes, the researcher listened to my concerns, allowing me to process my feelings.

A rendering of the COVID-19 emergency hospital facility that was built at the Peter Lougheed Hospital in Calgary, using a Sprung Instant Structure. (BLT Construction Services and Sprung)

The experience was so therapeutic that I joined an online COVID-19 study from Acadia University. Every evening for two weeks, I received a survey, tracking the high points of my days and answering standard psychology questions. 

Since I manage pain by eating well, exercising, tracking sleep patterns and socializing as much as possible, I trusted my immune system to protect me enough to volunteer at the Richmond Road Diagnostic and Treatment Centre in Calgary. In March, Alberta Health Services had put out calls for volunteers to support the call centre, clinic and two drive-thru testing clinics.

But once the federal travel restrictions came into effect in early April, the amount of work dramatically decreased.

An operating room nurse, who might have been saving lives had surgeries been scheduled, went home early after helping me assemble COVID-19 swab kits, as her colleagues tried to keep busy. On the ground in the Calgary call centre, experienced public health professionals commented that flu season was worse. 

Empty beds come at the expense of seniors

Of the 2,200 beds made available for expected COVID-19 patients, fewer than 10 per cent were full at the peak of infections. Those empty beds came at the expense of about 900 seniors discharged from hospitals into other facilities, such as seniors' homes, and 22,000 surgeries either cancelled or rescheduled.

The chief medical officer of health claimed  she didn't want to choose who lives and who dies. Yet seniors who died in care homes of COVID-19 may have been among those prematurely discharged from hospitals, while at least one man died in June waiting for a nonessential surgical pacemaker implant. 

I finally saw my physiotherapist a few weeks ago.

While the stress over the last several months had physically, mentally and emotionally wrecked me, she looked fabulous and ready to celebrate her 80th birthday in September.

The mandatory break provided recovery time for her, while my brain had been in lockdown, defending against stress. Gently, she brought circulation back, allowing relief I hadn't experienced in months. My jaw relaxed as her hands did their magic. No injections necessary. 

The multimillion-dollar COVID-19 field hospital at the Peter Lougheed Hospital in Calgary sits empty as, months later, people continue to wait for surgery.

In a province that offers degrees in biostatistics, politicians have no excuse for continuing to put patients' lives at risk by keeping hundreds of beds empty for COVID-19.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Sima Chowdhury is a social work student at the University of Manitoba, living in Calgary. When she's not advocating for a better world, she's probably lost in the woods.


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