Manitoba

Don't avoid emergency care in pandemic, says Manitoba MLA after health problem left her 'scared to go to bed'

MLA Eileen Clarke is speaking out because she doesn't want fears of COVID-19 to prevent other Manitobans from receiving the medical care they need.

Canadian Cardiovascular Society says too many have postponed care for significant medical issues over COVID-19

Agassiz MLA Eileen Clarke says she delayed the emergency care she needed until it was almost too late. She's encouraging all Manitobans to take a lesson from her experience, even as the threat of COVID-19 remains. (Submitted/Eileen Clarke)

With her hometown "under siege" from COVID-19, Manitoba MLA Eileen Clarke admits she wasn't thinking of her own health.

She was worrying for her mother, battling COVID-19 in a personal care home in Gladstone that's confronting an outbreak. She was thinking of her husband, a funeral home director, and those he's laid to rest from this disease.

It pushed Clarke last month to dismiss her own health scare on a day in which she felt lightheaded, nearly losing consciousness multiple times.

The elected official only acted when she was running out of time, even though medical professionals have repeatedly said people who need medical care unrelated to the pandemic shouldn't wait.

"I was scared to go to bed and close my eyes," Clarke remembered. "I thought that I may not reopen them."

'Sometimes we neglect ourselves,' MLA says

The Agassiz MLA and former Minister of Indigenous and Municipal Relations is speaking out because she doesn't want fears of COVID-19 to prevent other Manitobans from receiving the medical care they need.

"I've spent the past 20 months, like my colleagues and all our health-care givers, looking after the people of Manitoba and making every effort to make sure everyone is well taken care of," Clarke, 67, said.

"I guess in that, sometimes we neglect ourselves."

This summer, the MLA made headlines when she resigned from the Progressive Conservative cabinet, saying comments from former premier Brian Pallister that suggested the colonization of Canada was done with good intentions played a role in her decision. Pallister resigned a few months later.

Eileen Clarke, seen here in a file photo, resides in Gladstone. Her mother lives at the personal care home in the community. (CBC)

On the morning of Nov. 9, Clarke's focus was the personal care home in Gladstone, which was coping with a COVID-19 outbreak. Several residents, including her fully-vaccinated mother, got infected.

She didn't want Third Crossing Manor care home to become a repeat of Maples, the Winnipeg residence in which 56 people died from an outbreak last year.

The latest COVID flare-up was stressing her out, Clarke said. That morning, she was speaking with Health Minister Audrey Gordon and Southern Health officials to ask for staffing help at the home.

When she got off the phone, "I had an instance where I pretty much passed out and I thought, 'Well, that's a big load of stress,'" Clarke said.

She took it easy for a while. She later went to the garage for Christmas decorations, bent over and lost her balance, possibly losing consciousness.

Clarke recalls her mind feeling fuzzy, usually when she was getting up to stand or walk. It only lasted a few seconds at a time, so Clarke didn't grasp its seriousness.

"I guess the reason I didn't get overly concerned is because I could be up and around and was fine."

Her husband wanted to call 911, but Clarke was hesitant. She worried about being admitted into hospitals where COVID-19 was spreading, such as neighbouring facilities in Neepawa and Portage la Prairie with outbreaks.

"I did not want to end up in either of those hospitals."

But some 12 hours later she realized she couldn't wait any longer when she needed to fall asleep and didn't know if she'd wake up.

Irregular heart rhythm required pacemaker

Paramedics realized she was in desperate need of a pacemaker because of the irregular rhythm of her heart, so a temporary one was inserted. On the way to St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, her heart rate dropped to just 19 beats a minute, Clarke said.

She's spent a lot of time since thinking of how precarious her life became.

"I consider myself an intelligent human being … ensuring that other people are cared for, and to think that I would not care that much about getting help for myself," Clarke said.

"I don't know if I'm disappointed in myself, but it just scares me that it got that far."

Dr. Marc Ruel, president of the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, commends MLA Eileen Clarke for sharing her personal story of delaying care in the hopes of encouraging other people from avoiding the same fate. (Submitted/Canadian Cardiovascular Society)

Dr. Marc Ruel, president of the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, said Clarke isn't alone in delaying necessary care.

"This is something that happened many, many times during this pandemic, some variation of this theme," he said.

"The emergency departments may be full, the hospitals may be dealing with an outbreak, but other diseases are not going away — far from it."

Cardiac issues are not new for Clarke. She was diagnosed years ago with supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), an abnormally fast or erratic heart beat. She's received treatment, but knew she'd need a pacemaker at some point.

Perhaps that should have happened a year ago.

While at St. Boniface, a medical professional said an old ultrasound suggested Clarke may have needed a pacemaker back then. Clarke doesn't recall that urgency being relayed to her.

"To think that information was tucked away in a file and I had no idea about it whatsoever, I was walking on thin ice," Clarke said.

Ruel, also the chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, couldn't speak to Clarke's case specifically, but said ultrasound results can be open to interpretation.

Clarke doesn't hold any ill will around her situation. She raves about the care she received and the professionals involved. She was in and out of hospital in 16 hours.

She said the health-care system is coping as best it can amid a pandemic nobody could have predicted. Every jurisdiction, Manitoba included, will have to adapt their health-care system emerging from the pandemic, she said, which she's pleased the premier is committed to doing.

Eileen Clarke raved about the medical care she got at St. Boniface Hospital, where she received a pacemaker to help control her heart beat. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Ruel applauded Clarke for using her public profile to encourage other individuals to avoiding postponing medical care they need.

Over the pandemic, Clarke has found that sharing personal stories of her life on her Facebook page — from the triumphs to the struggles — has helped others. She describes her health scare, which she documented last month, as an example.

In one recent Facebook post, Clarke wrote that herself and her mother are improving after their individual health issues, but the ongoing outbreak at the Gladstone personal care home continues to weigh on her.

Such is true of Gladstone's challenges. She was the community's mayor until she became MLA in 2016.

"We'll get through this and life will resume, but with every event such as this, it changes lives, some forever," Clarke wrote.

Don't avoid emergency care in pandemic

1 year ago
Duration 2:09
Agassiz MLA Eileen Clarke is speaking out tonight saying she delayed the emergency care she needed until it was almost too late. She's encouraging all Manitobans to take a lesson from her experience, even as the threat of COVID-19 remains.

This story was possible in part thanks to Manitobans who filled out CBC's survey on the pronounced effect COVID-19 is having on Manitoba's health-care system. In it, we asked health-care workers, patients and their loved ones to send us their top concerns and questions about care during the pandemic.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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