The bed shortage at Red Deer’s hospital became all too real for a Gull Lake patient on Monday who was told he had to leave immediately without any warning.
Shane Werenka, who had emergency surgery for a perforated colon a week ago, said on Monday morning his doctor told him he would be released in a day or two. He was still adjusting to having a colostomy bag.
“Half an hour later, a nurse comes in and says, ‘You have to go home today. We need your room,’” said the 50-year-old who was helped out of his room at noon.
“They were literally throwing my stuff into my bags. Then they take me to this TV room.”
He said he didn’t have any colostomy bag supplies and was still in pain.
“It was just not a good situation.”
He said he spent most of the week lying down in bed, but was now expected to sit upright in a chair in a small room TV room on the surgical ward with about five strangers, including one who was stretched out on two chairs, during a pandemic.
“I was probably sitting there for 20 minutes until I realized I was there without a mask on,” said Werenka, who added the other patients were masked.
Werenka’s wife Michelle Cox had to rearrange her schedule to pick him up at 2 p.m.
“He went through a lot in that one week. I was not prepared for him to get out,” Cox said.
She praised nursing staff at the hospital for their dedication, but said the lack of beds is “absolutely horrible.”
“You hear about this stuff, but you don’t experience it. It’s pretty sad,” Cox said.
Alberta Health Services said in a statement that Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is experiencing capacity challenges due to a number of factors, and the site has initiated Over Capacity Protocol level two.
“During times when overcapacity protocols are activated, we work to improve access and ensure spaces are available for those who need it in a variety of ways, including discharging all eligible patients from hospital and providing enhanced home supports for those who may need it to help them continue their recovery at home rather than remain in hospital, ” AHS said.
“Early discharge is only done when medically safe and appropriate, and is decided by a physician. We also utilize over-capacity spaces and work with rural sites to transfer patients who are medically stable but still require further care to another health care facility.”
On Friday, the province announced a plan to ramp up work at hospitals and chartered surgical facilities to complete 55,000 more scheduled surgeries in the coming fiscal year to eliminate the pandemic backlog of postponed surgeries.
As part of the plan, five hospitals, including Innisfail Health Centre, have increased its surgical capacity by keeping operating rooms open into the evening and weekend. The 2021 provincial budget also includes projects underway or planned for seven communities, including Rocky Mountain House.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme said the plan falls short for Red Deer hospital.
“That’s where the complex surgery gets done. That’s where we are allowed to have overnight stays. The announcement on Friday is all well and good for Edmonton and Calgary, but to be honest I don’t think it’s going to help us here at all because we have no capacity to ramp up our numbers,” Wolstenholme said.
“I can’t see where we’ll be able to increase any operating room capacity in Central zone. Innisfail is tapped out already. We’re maxed out in Olds. We’re maxed out in Stettler.”
He said even before the pandemic, emergency cases were forcing elective surgeries to be postponed.
“Unfortunately, this is all going to get worse this summer because we’re losing about 30 per cent of our anesthesia workforce. We’re going to have a very hard time to meet even 80 per cent capacity over the summer, let alone the desired goal of 125 or 150 per cent.”
He said joint replacement patients are waiting upwards of two years for surgery.
“Whether that means a chartered surgical facility, or whether that means we actually get budgeted for a hospital expansion and we actually get the operating rooms and the beds that we need, we need something different than we have,” Wolstenholme said.
AHS said the number of Central zone surgeries will increase during 2021-22 fiscal year, and already increased during 2020-21.
“Planning is currently underway to determine the exact numbers and types of surgeries to be done in the coming year. We expect those plans to be completed and moving forward later this spring,” said AHS in a statement.
AHS said COVID-19 will continue to have an impact on the capacity to deliver surgery, but there are a number of strategies underway to support the Surgical Recovery Plan including: resuming surgical services at AHS sites where activity needed to be slowed during the second wave, increasing the volume of surgeries in chartered surgical facilities already under contract with AHS, and establishing new publicly-funded contracts with existing and new Alberta vendors to expand the scope of surgeries, including orthopedic day procedures, plastics and general surgery.
AHS said the Alberta Surgical Initiative will ensure that all Albertans will receive their scheduled surgeries within clinically appropriate wait times. To do so, AHS is working to ensure appropriate staffing supports are in place, including anesthesiologists. Site-specific plans are currently under development. More information will be shared when it becomes available.