Paramedics head north to help First Nations with strained health systems

Six advanced paramedics from Winnipeg have given up their days off and time with their families to volunteer in remote northern Manitoba communities where health services are being strained by COVID-19.

'We're there to help relieve some of that pressure'

Ryan Woiden says the advanced care paramedics stationed in the three First Nation communities have been extremely busy in just the first 24 hours they've been there. (CBC)

Six Winnipeg paramedics have given up their days off and time with their families to volunteer in remote northern Manitoba communities where health services are being strained by COVID-19.

"We're working with the staff up here, and I can't say enough about the staff that's accepted us up here. And I can't say enough about the communities and the people of these communities that have accepted us. They understand we're here to help," said Ryan Woiden, one of six advanced paramedics who left the city on Dec. 27 and will return on Dec. 30.

"We've just been given tasks, anything that, you know, when it gets a little overwhelming, we're there to help relieve some of that pressure."

Woiden is stationed in Wasagamack with another paramedic, while two each are in Oxford House and Shamattawa

In his regular duties in Winnipeg, Woiden is president of Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union Local 911, which represents paramedics, but he says the deployment up north has nothing to do with union business.

"We're up here on the invite from the First Nation and Inuit Health Branch [of the federal government]," he said.

"I guess they had contacted Shared Health Manitoba and asked if there was any advance care paramedics that were were available to come up and help with the staffing levels up here — that they could really use some extra set of hands up here."

The invite went around and Woiden and the other five paramedics answered the call.

"We all happen to work in Winnipeg right now, but that's not necessarily required. It just so happened that advance care paramedics from Winnipeg had the time and wanted to come up here and help," he said.

They've been helping assess patients' needs, setting bones, aiding with any medications to be administered, such as starting IVs, and assisting with any emergencies that may arise.

They've also been providing COVID-19 swab tests after being trained through a program at Red River College in Winnipeg.

"It's helpful when you have an extra set of hands to take care of the people that are lining up at the back door trying to get a swab," Woiden said. "They can just assign us to that, or they can have us inside to the nursing station helping out with individual cases."

In the context of COVID-19, many procedures require extra precautions that take a little extra time — something the  regular nursing staff in the communities doesn't have these days.

"And that's kind of where we can step in," Woiden said. "Since we've been up here, even just such a short time, in the first 24 hours we've been extremely busy."

It was difficult for all six paramedics to leave their families, even if it is just for a few days, Woiden says.

"We didn't just all just jump at it. We all made sure we did the right thing and ask our spouses and our families how they feel about it. Of course, they know, with us being paramedics, the passion that we have for this," he said, adding that based on the feedback from nursing staff in the communities, it was the right choice.

"The staff here has indicated that it would be helpful if this would be something that could happen more often in the future, and I can't repeat that enough," Woiden said.

"It's something that we [as paramedics] have as a skill set, as an education, and we want to do this. So, yeah, if that can help, if we can continue this future, I think that would be a positive step for health care in Manitoba."


Darren Bernhardt


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent. Story idea? Email: