Sask. doctor relieved to be home after months stuck in South Africa due to pandemic

Ten weeks ago PJ Vertue boarded a flight to South Africa, unaware he was about to be stranded. On Tuesday the Moose Jaw doctor finally boarded a repatriation flight back to Canada in a very different world.

PJ Vertue says flight attendants wore full PPE on his flight home

Moose Jaw emergency doctor PJ Vertue says he is relieved to be home to see his family and return to work when he has finished self-isolating. (Saskatchewan Medical Association)

Ten weeks ago PJ Vertue boarded a flight to South Africa for a three-week trip after the death of a family member, unaware he was about to be stranded.

On Tuesday,  in a very different world, the Moose Jaw, Sask., doctor finally boarded a flight back to Canada. 

He said he and the other Canadian and U.S. citizens on the flight from South Africa to the U.S. waited on a bus for the airport to open to accommodate their flight. 

They were physically distanced until they got on the plane, which was full. 

"The staff was in full PPE, like white suits, everything, face masks and so on, but all we had were masks," Vertue said. 

When he landed in the U.S., he couldn't get a flight back to Canada at first so he caught a domestic flight to Fargo, N.D., where a friend who is a flight instructor flew-in to return him to Moose Jaw.

Doctor still cannot see family

After more than 50 hours in transit, he finally stepped into the Moose Jaw apartment where he is self-isolating for two weeks. He still hasn't seen his children and he's only seen his wife through a window. 

He said being away from his family was one of the hardest things. He has a son who just turned two years old.

"Every day there's a new word, so I feel like I missed some of that and I had to do it on FaceTime videos with my wife," said Vertue.

"So obviously that is what I missed the most."

Vertue had travelled to Klerksdorp, South Africa, in mid-March to be with his father after his mother died. 

He said that at the time the pandemic had not shut down air travel and he had a flight booked to return home on March 30. 

Lockdown stops international travel

A few days after his arrival, South Africa enacted a lockdown on all international travel. Initially he tried to move his flights to a later date when the lockdown was expected to be lifted, but the restrictions stayed in place. 

He registered for a repatriation flight through the Canadian embassy but he said they too were cancelled multiple times, or scheduled on such short notice he was not able to catch them. 

Vertue said there was a time where he thought he might not make it home until the fall.

Finally, on May 17, he was able to get a flight from South Africa to the U.S. The flight had originally done a reverse trip, repatriating South Africans who were in the U.S.  

Now back in Saskatchewan, he said he has chosen to self-isolate away from his family to protect his children and his wife, who also works in health care. 

Feeling powerless to help

Vertue is an emergency doctor and a chief of staff for the southwest region of the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

He said it was difficult being away from his team when the pandemic arrived in the province. 

"I'm not a part of the day-to-day finding solutions to problems," said Vertue. 

"Even though we've got it pretty good down here in southern Saskatchewan for COVID numbers-wise, there's still a lot of work, a lot of pandemic planning …  you know, you sort of feel like you let [colleagues] down."

When his two weeks of self-isolation is over, he is planning to take a couple of days to be with his family before returning to work. 

"It's been like two-and-a-half months since I've physically seen them," said Vertue. "It got long in the tooth at the end." 


  • An earlier version of this story said Fargo is in Minnesota. In fact, it is in North Dakota.
    May 23, 2020 11:43 AM CT


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