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Code Grey: Workers, advocates paint a grim picture of health care in Niagara

Posted: February 23, 2023

(February 22, 2023)

By: Evan Loree, Niagara Now

“Code Grey” is one in a series of stories in The Lake Report about health care in Niagara Region. In hospital parlance, “Code Grey” means loss of essential service.
Niagara’s health workers are sounding the alarm over what some are calling a “crisis” in medical care.

Their overwhelming message at a town hall-style meeting hosted by area MPP Wayne Gates is that provincial budget cuts are at the root of the problem.

“We’ve got a crisis in health care,” Gates told the crowd of more than 100 people who packed a meeting room at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls.

“We’ve got to make sure that we take on home care and invest in it,” the New Democrat MPP said.

During the pandemic, for-profit care homes had more outbreaks and more COVID-related deaths than non-profit homes, according to a 2020 study by the Canadian Medical Association.

Gates, his party’s critic for long-term care, said, “It shouldn’t be about profit, it should be about care.”

A panel of paramedics, nurses, emergency room doctors, addictions workers, and advocates from the Ontario Nurses Association and the Ontario Health Coalition spoke at the Feb. 9 forum.

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, told a story about a woman in long-term care with both dementia and COVID-19.

The patient was found by her daughter “severely dehydrated,” unable to feed herself, with “excrement on her hands and feet.”

“Ontario funds our health care at one of the lowest rates in the country,” Mehra said.

“And the province is now saying the only solution is to privatize?” she said.

“It’s patently untrue. It will bring about the decimation of our local public hospitals,” she said.

The president of the Ontario Nurses Association Local 026 in Niagara spoke about a nurse who was put in charge of a floor despite being only one year out of school.

“They had over 30 patients on that unit,” Loretta Tirabassi said, adding that the young nurse was the most senior staff member at the time.

“So, she sat at the desk and cried,” she added.

“Ford’s message to all of you is, ‘Deal with it,’ ” she said.

Not wanting the audience to “lose hope,” Dr. Raghu Venugopal, an emergency room doctor at the University Health Network in Toronto, gave an account of the waiting times he has seen.

“I have patients waiting eight hours for chest pain – for an EKG,” he said. “The national standard in our country is 10 minutes.”

“I have victims of trauma, three days on an ER stretcher, not admitted to hospital with multiple injuries,” he added.

Paramedic Melissa Lacroix said her colleagues in Niagara had spent up to 33,000 hours waiting with their patients for hospital beds to open up.

“Paramedics are working 12 hours non-stop, no breaks, no food, no rest,” she said.

“We’re doing what we can with what we have. But we need more,” she said.

Venugopal said he frequently finds himself providing care that could be given by a nurse.

This means he has less time to “do the doctoring.”

He ended his presentation by arguing, “The one damn thing” that money “shouldn’t have to buy is health care.”

Heather Whitworth, a nurse practitioner from the Niagara Falls Community Health Centre, said it has become “increasingly challenging to access timely, specialized care.”

She and colleague Alison Mattatall pointed out that impoverished communities are the most vulnerable.

“Almost 50 per cent of our patients for whom we have data are living in poverty,” Mattatall said.

And drug dealers have found “innovative ways to reach youth through social media,” said Meaghan O’Connor, a human resources worker from Community Addiction Services Niagara.

As a result, her agency has seen more and more youth in need of addiction counselling – and the increasing complexity of addiction has taken a “large toll” on the staff.

During a question-and-answer period, residents shared a variety of concerns.

Also on hand was Francine Shimizu, mother of Heather Winterstein, 24, an Indigenous woman who died two days after being sent home with Tylenol by staff at Niagara Health in St. Catharines in 2021.

“My daughter died from a treatable infection,” she said.

“She wasn’t even given the courtesy of an assessment to include bloodwork and diagnostic imaging.”

Shimuzu, who said she has asked the College of Nurses to investigate the triage nurses who cared for her daughter, believes Winterstein was marginalized and discriminated against “based on her race and her history of drug addiction.”

She added, “I have been to the emergency department with gastroparesis flare-ups since the passing of Heather.”

Gastroparesis interferes with the normal function of the stomach muscle and is often a complication of diabetes, which Shimizu also has.

She said she was once laying in the fetal position on the floor of the Niagara Falls hospital to help with her gastric pain.

“On this occasion, my file was lost and I was kicked out of the queue,” she said.

Shimizu fears her file has been flagged because everytime she goes to the hospital for care, it seems to have been lost.

Venugopal responded by saying that Ontario Health was shielding 16 years of data on the province’s performance in the emergency room and that citizens ought to be allowed to see it.

One woman spoke up to argue that vaccine mandates for nurses were the root cause of low staffing rates among nurses.

Venugopal told her that while he respected her right to autonomy, Health Canada had reported only four confirmed cases of vaccine injury in the country.

This was met with jeers and cheers.

According to a spokesperson for Niagara Health, after it introduced mandatory vaccinations, 87 employees were fired for refusing to comply with the policy.

At the time, nearly 6,100 staff, or 99 per cent of employees were already vaccinated.

Today, Niagara Health is looking to fill 600 job vacancies, the spokesperson said.

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