Heart treatment could have saved her husband's life — but it wasn't available in central Alberta

A grieving family is pleading with Alberta Health Services to make a life-saving treatment for heart attack patients available in Red Deer — before another patient dies in Central Alberta.

A gap in the health-care system has left some patients hours away from a critical heart treatment

Lillian Hay's husband Grant was just 55 years old when he died of a heart attack while enroute to Calgary for life-saving treatment that isn't available in Central Alberta. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

A grieving family is pleading with Alberta Health Services to make a life-saving treatment for heart attack patients available in Red Deer — before another patient dies in central Alberta.

When Grant Hay, 55, returned home from a gruelling day at work feeling nauseated and short of breath, his wife took him to the hospital in nearby Rocky Mountain House. Doctors quickly realized he was having a heart attack and he was treated with clot-busting drugs.

"[They] did everything they could but the next step is where it seemed to fall down," said Grant's wife, Lillian.

Gap in the health-care system

The Hay family was about to experience, first-hand, what some physicians have identified as a gap in the health-care system that leaves patients in central Alberta hours away from the gold-standard in heart attack treatment.

The Red Deer Regional Hospital, which serves at least 400,000 central Albertans, does not have a cardiac catheterization lab in which specialists can insert a long tube into a patient's artery and eliminate deadly blockages.

That means most heart attack patients in central Alberta are given clot-busting drugs and sent to Calgary or Edmonton for the life-saving treatment.

But they don't always make it in time.

Doctors say while there is no way to know for sure, if cardiac catheterization had been available in Red Deer when Grant Hay had his heart attack, it is possible he may have survived. (Submitted by Lillian Hay)

A March snow storm had descended on the region the day Grant's heart failed, and neither STARS nor the fixed-wing air ambulance were flying.

Poor driving conditions meant a long trip by ground ambulance to Calgary would have been risky and with no catheterization lab in nearby Red Deer, specialists in Calgary recommended he stay put.

"With each passing moment is more time that's slipping away, " said Lillian who, as a retired nurse, understood the urgency.

"There was nothing more that could be done in [Rocky Mountain House]. We had to go that next step and it wasn't happening."

Grant's condition deteriorated later that night and it became clear his only chance of survival was to send him by ground ambulance, through the snow, to Calgary.

Grant didn't make it. He went into cardiac arrest on the way and died.

"Now I sit by myself wondering what I'm going to do with the rest of my life," said Lillian, who is still grappling with the unexpected loss.

"Would a catheterization lab close to home have made a difference — that he might be sitting here today? I'll never know that."

Outcome may have been different

Dr. Dolen Kirstein, the physician who cared for Grant that night, is frustrated by his patient's death.

Dr. Dolen Kirstein treated Grant Hay at the Rocky Mountain House hospital on the night he died. He says cardiac catheterization is "long overdue" in central Alberta. (Jennifer Lee/CBC News)

According to Kirstein, had the time-sensitive procedure been available in Red Deer, Grant would have been sent there within a half hour of his diagnosis, even in the snow. 

"That was essentially the only treatment that would have saved his life," said Kirstein. "I do believe his outcome may have been different had he been provided the opportunity to access a cardiac catheterization lab."

Doctors warn of high death rates for years

These concerns are echoing through central Alberta's medical community .

Several Alberta Health Services (AHS) reports have shown heart attack death rates in Central Alberta are higher than those in Calgary and doctors in the region have been calling on AHS to fund a cardiac catheterization lab in Red Deer for several years.

"It's tragic that this is happening," said Dr. Kym Jim, an internal specialist in Red Deer and one of the physicians leading the charge. "You're trying to deliver a service in Calgary and Edmonton for patients that are really too far away." 

After calling on AHS to bring cardiac catheterization to Red Deer for years, Dr. Kym Jim, internal specialist at the Red Deer Regional Hospital, calls the report a "positive stop" (Jennifer Lee/CBC News)

Jim is anxiously awaiting the release of an AHS report looking at cardiac services in the province, which he expected earlier this year.

"Cardiac catheterization can safely be delivered in central Alberta and … as a result of not delivering it people are dying," said Jim.

Alberta Health Services responds

AHS said the report — put together with Alberta Health and input from doctors, patients and others — is complete and will be made public next month.

In a written statement a spokesperson said "AHS is working towards having this service available in Red Deer and Lethbridge and also determining concrete steps to take to improve cardiac services in Red Deer and other regional centres."

According to AHS, the needs assessment found that both Red Deer and Lethbridge could support the development of cardiac catheterization labs.

While it has yet to provide timelines, the health authority said it will be working to ensure the infrastructure, beds, and proper programs are in place to support catheterization labs  in both cities.

Jim has seen other reports come and go. He's calling on AHS to provide a concrete plan including clear timelines on when funding is coming and when the service will be made available.

"We need action to be taken on this report," he said. 

Lillian Hay and her children (including Joe Hay and Cody Hay) are calling on AHS to build a cardiac catheterization lab in Red Deer. (Jennifer Lee/CBC News)

Meanwhile the Hay family still can't comprehend how an otherwise healthy husband, father and grandpa — who loved ice fishing and skidooing with his grandkids — is now gone. 

"It's hard to piece together losing your father the way that we did," said Joe Hay, who was with his dad the night he died.

He has a simple message for health officials: "Just please try and get [a catheterization lab] in there, just to help all those other families so that this doesn't happen to them."

For Lillian Hay, speaking out did not come easy. It took time.

But in the end she chose to lend her voice to the calls for help in an effort to save other families from the pain now haunting hers.

"[I'm] frustrated, angry, because he was only 55," said Lillian.

"There are human lives that are forever changed."

About the Author

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon, and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca