Winnipegger recalls rushed, overworked staff during surgical hospital stay

"I am extremely reluctant to come forward with my very true story of my recent hospital stay in Winnipeg. I support the people who cared for me, even when the stress they are under contributes to truly dangerous circumstances," Denise Fortier says.

Denise Fortier says she was treated well but, clearly, there was 'no room on the ward'

Winnipegger Denise Fortier on her recent hospital experience: 'The stress and frustration in the air was very evident, but I was always treated kindly.' (Submitted by Denise Fortier)

This First Person column is the experience of Denise Fortier, a Winnipegger who recently underwent surgery. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I am extremely reluctant to come forward with my very true story of my recent hospital stay in Winnipeg. I support the people who cared for me, even when the stress they are under contributes to truly dangerous circumstances. 

Last summer, I was placed on a waiting list for an essential surgery. In September, I was offered a cancellation appointment and was relieved to be able to get my surgery done.

In the hospital I was treated very well by every one of the doctors, nurses and health care staff. But there were some complications post-surgery, and it was recommended that I not go from recovery to the ward until a "sitter" could be arranged to watch my vitals and be alert for problems 

Staff shortage

That was a problem. A sitter could not be found. 

I ended up in recovery for more than seven hours because of a staff shortage. The frustration of the nursing staff was evident as they tried to do their jobs, but did not have the resources to move me.  Finally, I was taken to the ward.

Once there, I was transferred into a bed and hooked up quickly to the necessary monitors and oxygen, etc. It seemed clear that the nursing staff were all scrambling to get me settled.

The "sitter" who was finally arranged to watch me all night was a kind and attentive person. They had come directly from another shift to cover me, and they were obviously exhausted. We chatted about their plans for the next day and I asked "did they include rest?" No, they were going to leave the hospital, run some family errands and be back in eight hours for another evening shift. The sitter stood, rather than sat, for fear of falling asleep.

I was reassured that they would not 'force me' to leave.- Denise Fortier

The monitor alarm chimed often as my blood oxygen levels dropped whenever I relaxed or fell asleep. Several staff responded to the alarms and tried a number of remedies. Finally, they decided to leave me on oxygen for the night.  Well, that was good — until I knocked out the nasal prongs and once again set the monitor beeping for attention. Oh dear.

I asked several times about discomfort, itching and bladder pain. Each time the nurse would be trying to do several things at once, and would check quickly for problems, but the usual answer was "everybody feels that way."  The stress and frustration in the air was very evident, but I was always treated kindly.

The doctor performing rounds came in around 7:00 a.m. She was concerned enough about my complications with respiration, oxygen and pain that she recommended I be kept in hospital for another one to two days while consults were arranged. 

The nurse came in and went over my meds in detail. This had already been done twice and it was very time consuming for them, but since I would be in hospital for longer, it had to be done again. In the kindest and nicest way possible, I was made to feel I was really kind of causing a problem. 

I also continued to note that my stomach was very itchy and I was experiencing pain in my bladder. This was "to be expected" given my surgery. Mid-morning the same nurse returned and began discussing with me how most patients find they recover much more comfortably at home. 

I was told several times "statistically, people do better in their own beds," and that the hospitals are so busy they can't provide the attention I would likely get at home. I was reassured that they would not force me to leave. 

Sent home

A short while later I was told that the nurse had been asked to contact my surgeon (who had not seen me since he left surgery the day before) to discharge me. This was despite the earlier recommendation of the doctor on rounds that morning. The nurse was polite, but obviously under considerable pressure. 

The surgeon was not advised of any of the overnight breathing problems, the concerns I had expressed, nor that the attending physician had recommended further consultations. So, hearing no problems he agreed to discharge me.  I was asked how quickly I could arrange to be picked up. It was evident that the bed was needed immediately.

My daughter was able to come on short notice and by noon she had helped me get dressed, and brought a wheelchair to transport me. I asked about the consult with the respirologist and was told to arrange it with my doctor when I got home. 

When I arrived home, I finally had a chance to check out the itching around the incisions. My entire abdomen was covered in an itchy rash and pale pink residue from the surgical prep solution. Removing the adhesive I uncovered two large areas of chemical burn where the skin was blistered off.  I contacted my general practitioner to get medications to treat these conditions. 

Over the next two days I felt more nauseated. Three days after coming home from the hospital, I became extremely ill, vomiting all day. I went from sweating to extreme chills and shaking so badly I could not walk to the bathroom.

I was alone. I was going to call 911, but then I thought of the recent horror stories of ER experiences. I had images of lying in an ER hallway for hours, vomiting continuously, without a doctor in sight. I truly thought I would rather die at home.

I feel guilty for being a burden on the system.- Denise Fortier

I contacted my doctor's office and they ordered a lab test. Sure enough, I had a urinary tract infection and was started on antibiotics. I truly believe that a simple test when I was complaining of pain in the hospital would have saved me a truly awful week, and hastened my recovery.

Follow up? I am healing, but with many avoidable complications. I continue to experience low oxygen levels while sleeping or resting while I await a consultation with a specialist.

Too much with too little

My confidence in the ability of our health care system to meet the needs of Manitobans is sadly depleted.  Many, many good, professional, exhausted health care workers are being wrung dry, trying to do far too much with far too little. 

We dug the hole with our policies and desire for lower taxes. We were pushed into the hole by a pandemic. We are now being buried, one shovelful at a time, by folks who refuse to recognize that their "freedom of choice" takes away other people's freedom to live.

Oh, and a follow up. 

The pathology from my surgery shows carcinoma. I didn't really expect that. I am advised I may need further surgery, radiation or chemo. How long will that take? I just have to wait. 

I feel guilty for being a burden on the system. The idea of being once again in that lineup for precious health-care resources is terrifying.