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'A lot of unhappy people' wondering what's next for Summerside hospital

Rena MacDonald, who lives in Clinton, is concerned about patients from the Summerside area being sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, an hour's drive away. (Ken Linton/CBC - image credit)
Rena MacDonald, who lives in Clinton, is concerned about patients from the Summerside area being sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, an hour's drive away. (Ken Linton/CBC - image credit)

It's not hard to get people in Summerside talking about recent changes at Prince County Hospital, where a staffing crisis led administrators to say this month that some patients will have to be diverted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, an hour away.

"There's a lot of unhappy people about it," said Rena MacDonald of Clinton, interviewed at Credit Union Place on Tuesday.

"If there was a dire emergency, it's a long drive to Charlottetown. We're very concerned about our medical system here on P.E.I."

At Samuel's Coffee House in downtown Summerside, Dean Henderson of Spring Valley shared that concern.

"People living locally in this region want to have access to the health care that they deserve and need," he said, holding his three-year-old son Jack in his arms.

"You always want to be prepared for an emergency and have the services available to you… We just want the best health care for our family and our community."

Dean Henderson with son, James, 3.
Dean Henderson with son, James, 3.

Spring Valley resident Dean Henderson, shown with his son, says Islanders 'deserve and need' better health care. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

Blythe Martin lives in Charlottetown but grew up in Summerside and works there as a physiotherapist at a private business.

She's been increasingly worried since the intensive care unit at Prince County Hospital was downgraded eight months ago, in the face of a decreasing number of doctors available to work there. Thinking of her parents, Martin attended a town hall about health care the City of Summerside organized last April.

It's definitely a concern when we're taking the sickest of the sick patients from western P.E.I. and then transporting them to Charlottetown. — Blythe Martin

"At that meeting, the Health PEI CEO, Michael Gardam, kind of reassured all of us that the closure would just be temporary; the next step would be to reopen that ICU," she said. "So here we are now and we're kind of taking a step backwards instead of a step forwards."

Some travelling staff on the way 

Last week, Health P.E.I. said the Summerside hospital would have to restrict the number of critical-care patients it could care for, citing a lack of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists in the progressive-care unit starting in late January.

Concerned about changes at PCH.
Concerned about changes at PCH.

Blythe Martin attended the last town hall about service cuts at Prince County Hospital, when Summerside residents were told intensive care unit reductions would be a temporary measure. Despite that, she says, 'the sickest of the sick patients from western P.E.I.' will now be sent to Charlottetown. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

On Tuesday, officials with the health authority told CBC News they do have more staff coming for Prince County Hospital, mainly temporary staff retained through travelling health care services. But a spokesperson said "intermediate level" patients will still have to be cared for in Charlottetown, with the change being phased in over the next couple of weeks.

"Nobody ever plans to be in the ICU, but the reality of it is there are eight beds in that unit and they are always full," Martin pointed out. "There will be repercussions on all Islanders, really.

"Queen Elizabeth Hospital already has... very lengthy wait times, long waiting lists, stretched to the limit, more patients than they can accommodate.

"So it's definitely a concern when we're taking the sickest of the sick patients from western P.E.I. and then transporting them to Charlottetown and asking them to care for them."

While Summerside's Prince County Hospital has six ICU beds, just four are operational due to the nursing shortage.
While Summerside's Prince County Hospital has six ICU beds, just four are operational due to the nursing shortage.

Health P.E.I. says transfers of 'intermediate level patients' to Charlottetown from Summerside's Prince County Hospital will be phased in over the next couple of weeks. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

She's hoping another town hall meeting will be arranged to let area residents stress how much they need a strong hospital close to home.

'They want to save this resource'

The owner of Samuel's Coffee House, Moyna Matheson, said she has heard a lot of talk about the hospital in the past week.

"I think a coffee shop is naturally a place for that kind of conversation," she said. "What we're seeing a lot now is just really basic fear. I think people are fearful of what's happening."

Moyna Matheson, who owns Samuel's coffee shop in Summerside.
Moyna Matheson, who owns Samuel's coffee shop in Summerside.

'I think people are willing to come to the table with more solutions to offer,' says Moyna Matheson, who owns Samuel's Coffee House in Summerside. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Matheson acknowledges that any society finds it easier to pinpoint what's wrong than come up with solutions.

But in this case, she said, "I think that people are at a place that they want to save this resource in our community. And so I think people are willing to come to the table with more solutions to offer."

Matheson feels the focus has to be on taking care of the staff who continue to show up for shifts at Prince County Hospital every day — "their backs have been against the wall for a long time" — and hunting down new employees to supplement their work.

"I'm a big believer that there's a solution for everything. So it's not why can't we find them [but] what can we do to bring them here? What can we do to retain them? What can we do as a society to make them want to live here?"