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Save the Durham Hospital rally revs up community resolve

Posted: May 9, 2024

(May 8, 2024) By: Greg Cowan, Owen Sound The Sun Times

People who jammed into the Durham Community Centre hall Tuesday night for a rally to save the Durham hospital said they hope their actions are more of a battle cry than a death rattle.

Several hundred people joined a standing room only crowd and listened as speakers organized by the Save the Durham Hospital committee railed against a recent decision by its regional hospital organization to transform the Durham site into a daytime emergent and urgent care facility.

Some are worried it’s just a step in a slow march toward closing the hospital.

“Death by a thousand cuts,” Grey Bruce Health Coalition co-chair Norah Beatty said in her remarks to the crowd, some of whom watched from outside through the windows after failing to find space inside.

“It’s a war on rural healthcare,” said West Grey Mayor Kevin Eccles. “Rural healthcare is under attack and Durham is the poster child of that today.”

On April 25, the South Bruce Grey Health Centre (SBGHC) announced it plans to move the 10 inpatient beds at the Durham hospital to hospitals in Walkerton and Kincardine, essentially transforming the Durham site into an emergency-and-urgent care only operation, open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The hospital said the move, effective June 3, was being made to alleviate a critical staff shortage while still offering a form of consistent and predictable healthcare at the site, which has suffered from intermittent closures to its emergency department.

“The South Bruce Grey Health Centre (SBGHC) leadership team and board reviewed all options before coming to this decision. We do not have enough staff to keep both inpatient care and emergency services open at the Durham site. Relocating these beds allows us to protect access to urgent and emergent services in Durham,” the hospital said.

The announcement shocked and angered community members and local politicians who said the move blindsided them.

Eccles and Grey County CAO Kim Wingrove said they were given only a few hours’ notice before the announcement by the SBGHC.

Wingrove said there should have been more consultation with healthcare and community partners, and that other outcomes should have been explored.

Eccles challenged the SBGHC’s assertion the move is being made because of staffing issues. He pointed out that other hospital organizations in Grey-Bruce aren’t facing as many ongoing closures despite similar challenges.

“It’s not because of staffing issues, but management issues,” he said.

West Grey council approved funding during a special meeting to retain a lawyer to challenge the legality of the hospital organization’s decision and to explore other potential options for the future of the hospital in Durham.

Dr. Mary Pillisch has worked in Durham for 30 years and won a regional Family Physician of the Year award in 2023. She’s worried a hospital without inpatient beds won’t be a hospital much longer.

“It is our feeling this will inevitably lead to the closure of the Durham site,” Pillisch said.

She said four doctors told her they would no longer work on-call emergency shifts at the Durham site if no inpatient beds were available, citing safety concerns.

“This decision made to alleviate a nursing shortage leads to a doctor shortage,” Pillisch said.

Retired SBGHC chief nursing officer Maureen Rydell was part of the team in 2019 that decided to close the emergency room overnight at the Chesley hospital.

At the time, Rydell was the chief nursing officer and responsible for staffing nurses at the SBGHC’s four sites in Kincardine, Walkerton, Chesley and Durham.

She doesn’t believe the SBGHC faces a “critical shortage” of nursing staff today.

“I’ve been through worse,” Rydell said at the microphone, which was received by the nodding heads of current Durham hospital staff in the first two rows of seats inside the hall.

“I do believe something needed to be done, but not this,” she said.

She called for more consultation, better transparency and a stronger effort by the hospital organization to recruit and retain staff.

She’s worried the removal of the inpatient beds at the Durham site will result in nurses having to relocate to the other hospital sites to fill hours while leaving the Durham urgent and emergent care operation understaffed.

After retirement, Rydell was in a head-on collision and now shudders to think what would have happened if there weren’t enough nurses available for the three patients who arrived in critical condition one after another.

She knows the anxiety the nurses endure on the other side too, wondering when the next emergency might overwhelm their operation.

“Nurses live with those shifts for the rest of their lives,” she said after the meeting.

Beatty and Liberal health critic Dr. Adil Shamji — MPP for Don Valley East — drew parallels between the staff shortages hospitals are experiencing today and Conservative government legislation they say is centralizing healthcare resources to larger urban centres and leading to the privatization of more services.

Shamji still practices as an emergency physician. He talked about The Golden Hour, the first hour after a traumatic event in which quick intervention is often the largest difference in saving a life.

Those minutes tick away if Grey County ambulances are busy shuttling patients to inpatient beds at other sites or are diverted to take a Durham resident up to 30 minutes away to another hospital site because it’s after 5 p.m., he said.

“One thing I’ve learned is you can have a vastly greater impact outside of Queen’s Park than inside of Queen’s Park,” he told the crowd, inviting them to the Ontario Health Coalition’s giant protest and march planned for May 30 in Toronto.

The Grey Bruce Health Coalition is holding a similar, smaller-scale event at Owen Sound’s city hall on Saturday.

Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Rick Byers said the provincial government is working to help fill job vacancies by focusing on educating and training more nurses. He noted those aren’t solutions for today, but should help locally in the long term.

After the meeting, he said he didn’t understand why the same staffing challenges experienced by other regional hospital organizations are leading to long-term closures for the SBGHC. He wondered if they are facing unique challenges, but said the organization should be able to staff its hospitals at levels similar to before the pandemic.

“Why can’t we get back to that model?” he asked.

Save the Durham Hospital committee chair Jana White said the organization created following the SBGHC decision to move inpatient beds now has 20 members, and she expects plenty more to sign up after Tuesday’s meeting.

She noted local donations and fundraising galas supported the inpatient beds that will now move to other hospital sites.

Both Wingrove and Rockwood Terrace executive director Karen Kraus questioned the timing of the move with Grey County slated to build a new 128-bed long-term-care home in town and a new paramedic base planned to be built within the community.

It was a full house Tuesday, with some notable empty seats reserved for the SBGHC board and executive, front-and-centre, and later filled by some residents tired of standing.

Mayor Eccles said he’s still waiting to find out from the board and SBGHC CEO Nancy Shaw who decided to move the 10 inpatient beds. Was it a staff, board, or ministry call?

“All I’ve been told is don’t shoot the messenger,” he said. “Well, who is supplying the message?”

Meanwhile, concerned residents in Minden, Ont. are sounding the warning bells after Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) officially closed the town’s emergency department last summer. The hospital in Minden did not have any inpatient beds when it closed.

Five days before the Save the Durham Hospital rally, the SBGHC distributed responses to frequently asked questions about the decision to move the inpatient beds.

The three-page document included a detailed response to allegations the hospital is turning away qualified registered nurses who have applied for jobs despite the staffing shortage.

“All candidates who are qualified for the position and meet the criteria are considered for a job at South Bruce Grey Health Centre. In the last six months have received 16 applications for RN positions in Durham. Twelve of these applications were from out-of-country or out-of-region applicants who were not aware of the location of the job, and not interested in relocating or interviewing. Of the four other applicants, one did not meet the hiring requirements for the positions, two are currently in the interview process, and one was hired.”

The document reaffirms the changes are not about cutting costs, or a first step to eventually closing the Durham hospital site.

“The decision to transition the inpatient beds from Durham was made due to a critical shortage of staff at the site. Simply put, we do not have enough staff to keep both inpatient care and emergency services at the Durham site. Relocating these beds is what will allow us to keep the Durham site open with the staff we have.”

The SBGHC is hosting a community webinar on May 14 at 11 a.m. via Zoom featuring CEO Nancy Shaw and the hospital organization’s leadership team “to answer as many of your questions as possible,” according to a media release distributed Wednesday afternoon.

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