Father of Nain infant with TB says it took too long to airlift him to hospital

The father of a young child in Nain diagnosed with tuberculosis is questioning why it took so long to have his son airlifted to hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Derrick McLean says lack of urgency from hospital staff over baby's symptoms frustrating

Both Nain and Happy Valley-Goose Bay have seen outbreaks of TB this year. (Google Maps)

The father of a young child in Nain diagnosed with tuberculosis is questioning why it took so long to have his son airlifted to hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Derrick McLean's 16-month-old Bryson was treated at the Janeway Hospital in St. John's this spring for meningitis linked to TB, where doctors installed a shunt to help drain fluids on his brain.

He returned to Nain, but on Friday started showing symptoms that fluid might be building up again, which McLean says could be life threatening if it continues.

McLean doesn't understand why a search and rescue helicopter like the one pictured couldn't take his son to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Pat Nagle/CBC)

Poor weather prevented an air ambulance from flying Bryson out of Nain until Sunday morning, but McLean says a military search and rescue helicopter should have been called in to help before then. 

"I don't know why they wouldn't have got a chopper flown up there on day two, especially considering the situation and him just coming out of the Janeway about three weeks ago," he said.

"He might be alright, and he might not be. I don't understand why they're taking such a gamble with his life."

A clinical decision 

While he maintained that he hadn't looked into this particular case, Health Minister John Haggie said that decisions about when and how to evacuate a patient are based on the medical situation at the time.

"The decision as to how fast and how rapidly somebody needs to be medevaced from any location is a clinical one," Haggie told reporters Monday.

"It's not made by anybody except the health care providers on the ground, and the person to whom that patient is being referred."

Medevacs and patient transfers on land are the responsibility of the province, although Newfoundland and Labrador health officials have repeatedly called in the military for help in the past.

"If search and rescue were not called in, my assumption from where I am is that that was not a degree of priority that was reflected in the clinical case," Haggie said.

The helicopter contracted to handle provincial medevac services has been assessed to have a "maximum reliability" of 20 per cent because it can't fly at night or in bad weather. 

A chest x-ray shows pulmonary tuberculosis, with interstitial infiltration at left upper lung due to Mycobacterium Tuberculosis infection. (Puwadol Jaturawutthichai/Shutterstock)

The situation in Nain is unique, Haggie said, because it can only be accessed at night by a search-and-rescue helicopter. Its airstrip doesn't have a Transport Canada permit to operate at night.

The Nunatsiavut government has asked the federal government for a new airstrip that would allow for night landings, he said.

Frustrating ordeal

McLean said his frustration began before Bryson was even diagnosed with TB, and he was repeatedly told that his son's pain was the result of other things, such as teething.

It was only after a 14-year-old boy in the community died of TB that McLean said staff considered that his illness might be related to the disease, after McLean told them that the boy who died visited their home quite often.

Nain's Gussie Bennett, 14, died in March from complications related to TB. (Submitted by Katie Suarak)

The health clinic in Nain is staffed by nurses, but not a full-time doctor. That's why McLean felt it was so important to get Bryson on a flight to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

He said he told his partner to stay at the clinic until they found him a flight.

Frightening situation

McLean said he realizes that it's not that easy or cheap to mobilize a search and rescue chopper, but it shouldn't be a question when someone's life is at stake, especially a child's.

"It is frightening. Not only that but it's frustrating because it doesn't look like they take people's lives seriously," he said.

"I know that everything might be alright, but he only came out of the Janeway three weeks ago and he had the situation before and almost died. I don't know why they're not pushing for it again."

With files from Labrador Morning