Crowded, understaffed emergency room blamed for ambulance theft by psych patient

A severe lack of space and strained emergency room staff are being blamed for allowing a potentially dangerous psychiatric patient to allegedly steal an ambulance from the University of Alberta Hospital last week.

“They’re just trying to keep the place afloat.”

The head of the University of Alberta Hospital's ER says a lack of secure space forced them to keep the potentially dangerous patient in the waiting room. (CBC)

A potentially dangerous psychiatric patient stole an ambulance outside an emergency room last month, simply walking out the doors at the University of Alberta Hospital because there was no bed available for him and not enough staff to watch him.

“You feel sick about it. This stuff shouldn’t happen,” ER chief Dr. Bill Sevcik told CBC News.

The man visited the emergency room on the evening of November 28 and, due to a lack of bed space, was seen by a doctor in the waiting room. Sevcik said the man was diagnosed as psychotic and needed emergency psychiatric care, but the department was already at capacity.

Since there was no secure room free elsewhere in the hospital, the patient was sent back to the waiting room under a Form 1 order, which Sevcik said is reserved for patients who are “clearly delusional, clearly psychotic” and are too dangerous to be allowed to leave the hospital. Sevcik said in such circumstances, patients are supposed to be watched by a security guard. He wasn't able to confirm if the guard was responsible for other patients at the time. 

“How can we juggle our security forces such as they keep the safe place, keep us safe, keep the patient safe?” Sevcik asked.

The patient was able to slip away from security and leave the waiting room. Though triage nurses were on the floor at the time, Sevcik said it is practically impossible for a handful of workers to watch over an ER crowded with dozens of patients.

“The door never closes. So, the ambulance keeps arriving, the helicopter keeps arriving, people keep coming in,” he said. “So they’re just trying to keep the place afloat.”

The patient escaped through the front doors of the hospital and got into an unattended ambulance, which may have been running.

He was stopped by police near 100 Street and Jasper Avenue.

'A system in crisis'

The ambulance theft is just one dramatic example of a “system in crisis,” said Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the union that represents EMS workers.

She said the lack of capacity at the hospital is to blame for the incident, which put the lives of patients, health-care workers and the public at risk. The ambulance could easily have been damaged, she said, leaving one less vehicle available to deal with emergencies.

Ballerman warns that with the province signalling it won’t put more resources into the health care system to match population growth, emergency rooms will see even greater pressures.

“We hear that again and again and again. And you have to wonder how often we are going to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic until we do something meaningful.”

Police say the patient was taken back to the hospital and admitted after his arrest.

He now faces charges related to the incident.


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