Brandon woman questions lack of care during air transport to Winnipeg after heart attack

A Brandon senior says the conditions of her air ambulance trip to Winnipeg last month were “totally inhumane” and she thought she would die before getting there.

Elderly patient's experience discussed during question period

Close-up shot of a white-haired woman with glasses.
Eleanor Buechler is speaking out about the conditions she experienced during an air transfer from Brandon to Winnipeg to get an angiogram after having a heart attack. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

A Brandon, Man., senior says the conditions of her air ambulance trip to Winnipeg last month were "totally inhumane" and she thought she would die before getting there.

Eleanor Buechler, 79, went to the Brandon Regional Health Centre because of pain in her chest on Feb. 1. She was diagnosed with a heart attack and was airlifted to Winnipeg two days later to receive an angiogram at St. Boniface hospital.

An angiogram is a diagnostic test that takes X-ray pictures of the coronary arteries and the vessels that supply blood to the heart. Buechler said she was sent for the procedure to determine the extent of the damage caused by the heart attack.

Buechler, who was taken by ambulance on a stretcher to the airport, said she was made to walk to the plane outside while wearing only a hospital nightgown, housecoat and slippers.

"I was told to walk to the plane, and I was flabbergasted because I thought, 'I was just diagnosed with a heart attack — what am I doing?'" she told CBC.

The plane was cold too, she said, and she had to sit buckled into a seat with no blankets.

"All of the way to Winnipeg, I thought, 'If I have a heart attack, I will die if the cold doesn't get me first,'" said Buechler.

"I have no fear of flying. It was the fear of dying with no help."

Buechler said she was so cold when she got off the plane that her hands and feet were numb. She had to walk to the stretcher van which took her to St. Boniface hospital.

Once arriving, she was told she could enter the hospital via a snow-covered wheelchair ramp or by cement stairs, and chose the stairs.

"I was so cold that I was vibrating."

'Heartwrenching': Wab Kinew

Buechler said she was able to warm herself up and stop shaking in time for the angiogram, which requires patients to be still so a needle can be inserted into a main artery.

She wonders why she was made to walk to the plane, stretcher van and hospital when Brandon hospital staff put her on bed rest.

In a statement to CBC News, a Shared Health spokesperson said patient relations have reached out to Buechler and that the incident is currently being reviewed.

Close-up shot of a woman's finger on a handwritten letter.
Eleanor Buechler holds a letter detailing her experience with Manitoba's medical air transport. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

They could not comment on Buechler's case specifically, but said stable patients are often asked to walk with accompaniment by medical staff.

"Every effort is made to ensure temperatures inside the aircraft will also provide patients with comfort during their trip," the statement said, but external factors such as colder weather may cause temperatures to fluctuate inside of medical transport vehicles.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew raised concerns about Buechler's experience on Wednesday, calling it "heartwrenching." He blamed the incident on the privatization of air ambulance services.

"I think the first step has to be higher standards and the enforcement of those standards on the people who are running these services," Kinew told news media after question period.

Premier Heather Stefanson wasn't at question period due to a funeral, but deputy premier Cliff Cullen responded to concerns in the house citing a request for proposals which was put out to improve medical aviation services.

"This [request for proposal] will also build a more modern critical care service that supports the evolving needs of Manitobans including those in Manitoba," said Cullen.

Buechler said she was overwhelmed by being mentioned in the legislature, but added it was satisfying to spread awareness of her experience.

An elderly woman is pictured sitting on a chair and looking down at pieces of paper in her hands.
'It just kept running through my head that I'm going to die and nobody cares,' said Beuchler. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

She wants to know what the communication protocol is between hospitals and medical aviation services.

"My question is, 'Was I taken into Winnipeg by a paramedic or was I not? Did this person that came with me get information that I was diagnosed with a heart attack and I wasn't supposed to walk?'"

Neither Shared Health nor the province have contacted her, she said, and the only phone calls she's received have been from reporters.

"It upsets me, because I rely on people in health care. We need them to look after us."

Buechler said her plane ride back to Brandon was much better, after a paramedic she'd told about her trip to Winnipeg made sure she was warm.

When she returned home, she had a head and chest cold which left her bedridden for nearly two weeks. Buechler's daughter and husband cared for her through that period and she didn't return to the hospital, she said.

But the experience is causing her to have nightmares. The senior said she is telling her story with the hope that it prevents another person from going through the same situation.

"I have so much to live for. I have a loving family and husband," said Buechler.

"It just kept running through my head that I'm going to die and nobody cares."

With files from Josh Crabb and Chelsea Kemp