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Editorial: Northern health care needs heroic measures

Until the northern heath care system improves to become at least merely barely adequate, residents will have to way whether the benefits of living in Northern Manitoba outweigh the drawbacks.
heart rate monitor stock photo by Randy Faris Getty Images

During the early and even later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic — remember that? — many health care services were restricted or cut back because of worries and the reality that dealing with the large number of patients who needed to be hospitalized as a result of the coronavirus required resources to be reallocated to prevent the potentially catastrophic outcome of hospitals having to turn patients away on account of having no more room or staff to treat them.

Though the strain that COVID-19 is currently putting on the health care system is far less than what it was, at least as far as we know, the north is already experiencing a version of that outcome, only it’s not because existing resources have been shifted elsewhere but simply the result of northern facilities being inadequately staffed and unable to offer even basic services, such as an emergency department that is open on a summer weekend, without relying on outside help from staffing agencies. When those agencies can’t come through with the workers that places like the Leaf Rapids Health Centre require, people who live in Leaf Rapids are left without anywhere to go for medical help in an emergency situation, or at least not anywhere that isn’t a completely different community.

The emergency department in Leaf Rapids shut down for a temporary closure July 13. It is supposed to reopen July 19 but residents can probably be forgiven if they don’t have a great deal of faith in that promise. The last time the health centre had to temporarily close down for two weeks it was actually closed down for four.

It might be hard to convince someone who lived in Northern Manitoba, say, 10 years ago, that the level of health care available here has gone downhill, because it was far from great back then, but the reality is that it has. At least at that time, the system existed seven days a week in most communities that were lucky enough to have health care facilities. Now, well, you know, it doesn’t, not in Leaf Rapids on numerous occasions over the past two years and not in other places like Gillam at some points either. Thompson’s emergency department has managed to stay open all day every day, though on at least one weekend it only did so with help from paramedics employed by the City of Thompson.

People have been saying that northern health care is in a crisis for years, but now it’s in a really super-duper urgent crisis. With more nursing positions unfilled than filled in places like Lynn Lake and Leaf Rapids as of late last year, in some cases only a single person is what stands between a facility becoming a nursing ghost town. The system is operating with a skeleton crew and it seems like some of those skeletons’ bones are beginning to crack. Solutions need to be found and they need to be found fast.

As Flin Flon NDP MLA Tom Lindsey told the Thompson Citizen July 13, referring to a message that the provincial government needs to understand, “People still live in the north.” Unless the heath care system improves to become, if not good, at least merely barely adequate, some of those residents may be questioning that decision and wondering if it is time to get out of the region before they die here as a result of worsening and, at times, non-existent health care.