Fort McMurray hospital staffing not placing lives in jeopardy: Opposition MLA

Patients' lives have not been put at risk because the Fort McMurray hospital doesn't have an on-site pediatrician for emergencies, says Fort McMurray MLA Tany Yao.

‘I hate to defend Alberta Health Services but in this case I will'

April Morgan’s daughter, Lily, suffers from congenital heart failure, has had two open heart surgeries and is fed by a tube. (April Morgan/ Submitted)

Patients' lives have not been put at risk because the Fort McMurray hospital doesn't have an on-site pediatrician for emergencies, says Fort McMurray MLA Tany Yao.

The Wildrose opposition MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo was responding to concerns raised by a pediatrician about the potential risk of not having a specialist at the local hospital.
MLA Tany Yao says Fort McMurray’s isolation makes it harder to attract and keep specialists. (Wildrose)

"I hate to defend Alberta Health Services," Yao said. "But in this case, I will."

Dr. Ghassan Al-Naami said he's concerned it takes too long for on-call pediatricians to arrive at the hospital during emergencies. He suggested repeatedly to hospital administration that the Northern Lights Health Centre should hire a full-time emergency pediatrician. But the hospital has said it has no plans to do so.

 Al-Naami, who also expressed concerns about staffing, resigned from his position and will end his full-time practice in the city.

Alberta Health Services said in an email statement on Thursday it has used on-call physicians for decades, and patients aren't at risk. AHS said a team of doctors and specialists remains on-site until a pediatrician arrives and no patient has died or been harmed as a result of waiting for a specialist.
Dr. Ghassan Al-Naami is resigning from Fort McMurray's Northern Lights Regional Health Centre over fears their staffing protocols may jeopardize lives. (David Thurton/CBC)

Yao said it was "unfortunate" Fort McMurray can't have a full-time pediatrician on-site for emergencies. He would also like to have an obstetrician and an orthopaedic surgeon in the city. But he said Fort McMurray's isolation makes it harder to attract and keep specialists. It's also difficult to justify having full-time specialists with Fort McMurray's lower patient numbers compared to other centres.

"It's an accepted reality in our northern communities, that we do have a hard time attracting these professionals," he said.

'We can't wait for tragedies'

While the MLA defended the health authority, a medical advocacy group said AHS and the government shouldn't dismiss  Al-Naami's concerns.

"We can't wait for tragedies to occur before we react," said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare.

She said specialists should not be on-call or simply flown into rural communities a couple times a year. But the government has improved health-care options in remote areas like Fort McMurray, she said.

Mothers mobilize

Meanwhile, some Fort McMurray mothers are scrambling to find another pediatrician.

Several mothers who spoke with CBC News said Al-Naami was a beloved pediatrician who helped their children when other doctors couldn't.

Jeanette Davis's son, James, was diagnosed with a rare condition called achondroplasia at age seven months. Davis is worried about what will happen to her son's health care if another paediatrician leaves the city. (Jeanette Davis/ Submitted)

Jeanette Davis said Al Naami diagnosed her son with a rare disease called achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. She said Al-Naami took the time to learn about the disease, talk with specialists and always answered her emails and phone calls.

"He's even called me on his day off, like on a Sunday," Davis said. "To reassure me about something."

April Morgan's daughter suffers from congenital heart failure and has multiple holes in her heart. She has had two open heart surgeries and is fed through a tube.

Morgan said when her daughter was seven days old and stopped eating, she took the baby to several Fort McMurray doctors and the hospital. While general physicians dismissed the seriousness of it, Morgan said Al-Naami saw the baby's heart was performing irregularly and ordered her medevaced to Edmonton.

"If it wasn't for him, she wouldn't have made it," Morgan said.

She now worries about her daughter's future in a city short one pediatrician.

"We're in such a secluded community," Morgan said. "We're five hours away from anything for a child."

"For all the resources that Fort McMurray has or should have, we need more adequate care for our little people."

AHS has assured patients it will fill the gaps when Al-Naami leaves in February. The health authority has said it hopes to recruit another pediatrician shortly.  

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him via email.