Ambulance operators in rural N.L. facing added stress with hospital diversions

With longer drives and fewer hands to help, a paramedic on Newfoundland's south coast says hospital diversions are taking a toll on first responders across the province.

Routine trips now take much longer

Myra Herritt, a paramedic with a community-based ambulance service in Hermitage-Sandyville, has been a first responder for almost 20 years but says this is the first time in her career she's dealt with such a widespread physician shortage. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

With longer drives and fewer hands to help, a paramedic on Newfoundland's south coast says hospital diversions are taking a toll on first responders across the province.

Myra Herritt, a paramedic in Hermitage-Sandyville, says a routine trip out of her community can now take about six times as long as it used to, and first responders are bearing more responsibility during that stretch.

"We used to think Harbour Breton was far away," she said. "We didn't appreciate how good we actually had it."

In the past, Herritt said, a routine trip would take a patient from Hermitage to Harbour Breton — a 38-minute drive — where they would be seen by a doctor. Many had to go further, to Grand Falls-Windsor, but they would first be stabilized, and often a nurse or a doctor would ride along with paramedics to assist in the transfer.

With regular diversions away from the Connaigre Peninsula Health Centre, paramedics are now making regular trips to Grand Falls-Windsor directly, without the assistance of doctors and nurses in Harbour Breton.

"You had a doctor, you had a nurse. So if you could get them to Harbour Breton, they had a chance," said Herritt. "Now when we leave, you don't even have cellphone service to call your online medical control to help you through some of those situations that you might need help with."

The first responders work in pairs, she said, so one person drives while the other tends to the patient in the back of the ambulance.

"If you had to do CPR on the way, you're pulling over on the side of the road and you're not going any further, because guess what? You're not going to do one-person CPR for very long," she said.

"So your patient's chances of survival is diminishing because you only got one set of hands in the back. And that's what bothers me the most is the patients are going to suffer for it."

Herritt says ambulance operators and paramedics in rural Newfoundland and Labrador are burning out because of their added workload. (CBC)

The hospital diversions away from Harbour Breton have continued in May, with emergency room closures several days last week. Herritt said her colleagues are making five or six difficult trips to Grand Falls-Windsor every week.

Herritt said the physician shortage is hitting the first responders hard.

"It's when you got a patient that you know would have made it to Harbour Breton, but they didn't make it to Grand Falls. And then that's when guilt sinks in.

"We're starting to blame ourselves because we were the ones solely responsible for them," she said. "That part is very, very difficult."

Herritt said she has been lobbying officials to increase funding for ambulance services so they can bring on a third set of hands on each call — something she said would make a big difference.

Otherwise, she predicts that burnout and stress will hit the province's paramedics, and resignations in that workforce to come.

The drive from Hermitage to Grand Falls-Windsor is 220 kilometres, and there is no cellphone coverage for the majority of that journey. That means paramedics cannot connect to other medical staff for support during the trip. (CBC)

In a statement, Central Health said ambulance services have worked together to provide extra help.

"Additional support has also been provided in some areas related to ER closures or extended diversions," a spokesperson wrote in an email. "Additional staff or an escort of a patient on an ambulance for the most part, is based on clinical assessment and patient acuity."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Gavin Simms