The Advocate presents a three-part series that puts the city’s undersized and under-resourced hospital under the microscope.
Today: Patients frustrated by quality of care
Thursday: Doctors press for hospital improvements
Friday: Provincial government shortchanges Red Deer
Cathy Hunter knows more than most people what the cardiac care shortage in Red Deer can do to a family.
The Red Deer woman said four people in her family, including herself, have needed life-saving cardiac services unavailable at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
She said her father, John Omelchenko, had to be flown by STARS air ambulance to Calgary. Even by air, it seemed to take forever for him to arrive, and valuable time was lost.
“Some of his heart muscle died and that caused heart failure and complications that inevitably led to his death,” Hunter said about her father, who died in 2010.
“Everyone knows (heart disease) is the No. 1 killer. The fact that a place like Red Deer, that services such a huge area, doesn’t have cardiac catheterization, it’s ridiculous, because those hours we spend going back and forth to Calgary or Edmonton are the ones that are hurting us.”
Her son Todd, who was born with congenital heart disease in 1988, still has to travel for regular treatments and checkups.
In 2011, it was Hunter who required cardiac catheterization. She said blockage problems are still a concern and it’s frightening to know that at some point, more treatment will be needed that isn’t available in Red Deer.
“I don’t understand the system. I only understand the pain it is to be the patient in the system.”
Her mother, Min Omelchenko, 84, has a pacemaker and has been in and out of hospital for a variety of issues, most recently in December.
“Every time I take her in there, it’s at least a one- or two-night stay in emergency before she gets upstairs. They are always overcapacity.”
Hunter said her mother has ended up sleeping in make-shift patient spaces created in tub rooms and closets.
Since 2016, Red Deer-area doctors have been calling for expanded hospital services and infrastructure, more beds, operating rooms and emergency room treatment stretchers.
Cardiac patient George Smith said on Feb. 19, he had to be taken to an Edmonton hospital after he suffered a massive heart attack after working out.
“All of a sudden, pain came up my right side into my neck, then jumped to my chest. After that, it was kind of a blur,” said Smith, 77, of Red Deer.
He said paramedics arrived in about three minutes and he was taken to Red Deer’s hospital, where his heart stopped and he had to be resuscitated.
“Then came the ride from hell. I remember being in so much pain and throwing up all over their ambulance,” Smith said about his ride to Royal Alexandra Hospital.
He said he was actually one of the lucky ones.
“Two years to the day I had the heart attack, my neighbour across the street, a good friend of ours, she had a heart attack. She didn’t make it (to Edmonton).”
Smith said a heart attack is like anything else: people don’t think it’s going to happen to them. Now, he wonders when it will happen again.
“I do worry, more so than ever. It’s kept me awake at night.”
He said a friend actually moved to Calgary a few years ago because he wasn’t confident in Red Deer’s health-care system.
“We all don’t want to leave Red Deer,” Smith said.
Mike Burlein, who lives west of Innisfail, was also taken by ambulance to Edmonton after his heart attack.
“You can imagine how I felt about that, at least a two-hour delay because of the ambulance ride,” said Burlein, 66, who had no history of heart problems.
On Jan. 30, Burlein’s wife took him to Red Deer’s emergency department, where a doctor had to perform CPR and defibrillation to get Burlein’s heart pumping again.
Burlein needed an angioplasty, so he was sent to Edmonton.
“By the time we got to the outskirts of Edmonton, I could feel the chest pains coming back. So they actually had to turn on the lights and sirens to get me through Edmonton.
“To make matters worse, my wife had to drive up all by herself following the ambulance. She wasn’t even sure if I’d be alive by the time she got to the hospital,” Burlein said.
His wife, Monica Kaban, said it’s outright appalling the way government is risking the lives of central Albertans.
“If the government was being sued for this, they’d have something here already. People have died,” Kaban said.
Local doctors say without local access to treat blocked arteries, and the long transfer times for the treatment elsewhere, central Albertans have a 60 per cent higher rate of death or disability than people in Calgary or Edmonton.