The crisis gripping New Brunswick health care services, from emergency ward closures to restricted hours, has fallen heavily on communities across the province, large and small.
Health care disruptions continue to hit hard for rural communities like Sackville, a southeastern New Brunswick university town with 5,500 permanent residents and about 2,200 Mount Allison University students during the school year.
Recent months have seen hours at Horizon’s Sackville Memorial Hospital Emergency Department (ED) restricted to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as closures with little notice.
As a mother of three living within the service region of Sackville, I have experienced first-hand the importance of dependable local emergency medical services and, increasingly, the burden of not knowing when services for my family will be withdrawn.
Sadly, this summer’s experience suggests that Sackville ED is now a part-time, unpredictable service. The Department was closed May 20, reopening May 21, and then again on June 23, reopening the next day.
On the Canada Day long weekend — a time of stress for some families, including out of province visitors and social gatherings that increase risk of accidents — the Sackville ED was closed July 1 and reopened the next day. Most recently, it enacted a longer closure: from Friday, July 8, to Monday, July 11.
Most of the time closures are announced with little notice, on the day of closure or the day before.
A Facebook post on June 8 by Horizon Health announced: “Attention: Sackville, Moncton and surrounding area! Due to an increased number of COVID-19 cases among health care staff, Horizon has implemented a temporary closure of the Emergency Department at Horizon’s Sackville Memorial will be closed.” The statement continues, “All patients requiring medical care outside services ours will need to seek treatment at another hospital or by another health care provider.”
With doctor shortages across New Brunswick, local families relying on Sackville’s ED might ask: where are these other services at other hospitals or healthcare providers? How — and at whose expense — will we travel to seek such treatment? Finally, and most of all, will we or our family members make it there in time?
As Sackville absorbs another 2,200 Mount Allison University students this fall, roughly 7,700 residents will rely on the part-time emergency, intermittent services.
Consider the options for residents forced to seek care elsewhere.
At worst, that means forgoing care altogether, or sometimes waiting more than 11 hours at a Moncton hospital. On July 12, a waiting patient died in the waiting room at Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton.
Faced with the dangers of waiting so long, some residents have even travelled to Amherst, Nova Scotia, in another province altogether. But, using a different provincial Medicare Card does not ensure all medical expenses are covered.
These are difficult decisions about money and health being forced on southeastern New Brunswick families.
Let’s look a little closer at the potential costs to community members redirected from Sackville to seek care in Moncton. Options are very limited when travelling to Moncton from Sackville, especially in an emergency.
If residents do not possess a registered motor vehicle and a driver’s license, or if they are understandably unsafe to drive during an emergency, they must either take a taxi or an ambulance.
Squires’ Courtesy Cab in Sackville quoted a price of $85-$90 to get to the Moncton Hospital, as a one-way trip. All the taxi companies in Sackville close at 10 pm, leaving patients with ambulance travel as the only option.
According to Ambulance NB, an ambulance from Sackville to Moncton costs $130.60, and can cost as much as $650 for non-residents. This could be a terrifying situation for anyone and one that is increasingly a reality as Sackville ED operates at reduced hours on an unpredictable schedule.
In my case, this problem has a very personal dimension.
As a university student and mother of three children, I had to access Sackville Memorial ED on quite a few occasions. On one occasion my toddler was choking on a small object and had dangerously low oxygen levels. If it had not been for the Sackville ED, I fear for what could have happened, needing to travel 20 or 30 precious minutes to the next nearest hospital. What if I had rushed to Sackville ED, reasonably expecting emergency care, only to find it closed? More minutes wasted.
Some people consider these frightening times indeed. They may have moved to this small rural town, or chose to study here, in hopes for tighter-knit community and reliable health care and other services. Their hope was based on the reality that Sackville’s hospital is right on Main Street downtown, and in walking distance of so many things, including many student dorms.
What use is being in walking distance to a hospital, if they are not there in your time of need?
The future of New Brunswick health care is still a fearful unknown as residents fight for their healthcare, waiting for the system to stabilize, with more physicians and nurses to run the emergency departments. In the meantime, the community will spend so much extra time and money finding alternate sources for health care, which may not be enough in a true emergency.
It is the hope of many citizens relying on Sackville Memorial that the Memramcook-Tantramar Community Task Force will assist Horizon Health in implementing a vision that residents can get behind. The Task Force is made up of concerned citizens of the Tantramar Entity 40 (the amalgamated communities of Dorchester and Sackville) as well as Memramcook and surrounding areas.
There may come a point where university students, their parents, or other existing or prospective community members ultimately decide that it is too risky to rely on Sackville Memorial. What is the hope for those who live in Sackville to be on their ancestral lands, or those who lack the financial resources, or good health, or time away from work and family to travel for health care?
These are questions that many hope to find answers to, and soon.
Kirsten Leclaire-Mazerolle, from Natoaganeg First Nations, is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN.