Bonavista residents fought for their dialysis unit. Now it keeps closing

Peggy Phillips, a Bonavista resident, says her brother-in-law, Art Reid, is known for his sense of humour — but he's been struggling with the 90-minute trips for dialysis. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Peggy Phillips, a Bonavista resident, says her brother-in-law, Art Reid, is known for his sense of humour — but he's been struggling with the 90-minute trips for dialysis. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

A Bonavista woman is afraid the worst will happen if the community's dialysis unit keeps closing, forcing her brother-in-law to make repeated, painful trips to Clarenville for treatment.

Peggy Phillips' brother-in-law, Art Reid, gets dialysis twice a week to help with kidney function. The 66-year-old, who has diabetes, usually goes to the clinic in Bonavista — a four to five hour affair, Phillips said.

But recently, the dialysis unit at the Bonavista Peninsula Health Centre has closed multiple times due to staff shortages, meaning Reid has to travel 90 minutes to Clarenville in the back of an ambulance.

"He has to leave like 10 in the morning," she said. "He don't get back til eight or nine at night."

Phillips is worried about what her brother-in-law will do if the closures continue.

"If he's got to go to Clarenville, he's not gonna," she said. "He's got the nerve enough to refuse it. He's after going through that much — I don't think he needs that stress on him."

About four years ago, Reid had open heart surgery after experiencing a heart attack. A few months later, Reid had both his legs amputated below the knees due to problems with his kidneys.

Still, Phillips said her brother-in-law is known for his good spirits and sense of humour — but recently, Reid has been struggling.

"The day before he got to go to Clarenville, he's really upset, like really depressed and knowing what he got to do," she said.

"He's uncomfortable on the ambulance. They're good to him — the ambulance drivers — wonderful to him, but he's very uncomfortable, and after dialysis, you're sick anyway."

Hear why Peggy Phillips is afraid the worst could happen:

Phillips fears soon, her brother-in-law will refuse treatment.

"With no doctor in Bonavista, he'll never make it," she said.

'Fighting to live'

Gail Brown knows what it's like to watch a loved one travel for dialysis. Before the Bonavista unit opened, her mother went to Clarenville 208 times a year.

In 2010, Brown joined a committee to lobby the government for a dialysis unit at the health centre. Residents raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Eastern Health opened the unit in 2015.

But now, the unit has started closing — and patients have to travel again.

"I know what my mom went through," Brown said. "It's heartbreaking."

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Brown said the unit has about nine patients, most of whom get treatment three times a week.

"Those patients that are lifeless when they come off dialysis, and then beating on ambulances or private taxis or in your own vehicle to drive home — you're talking another hour and a half before you even get home to be able to sit in a regular chair or lay in a bed and have a meal."

Weather and road conditions impede travel on the highway, especially during the winter. Brown said due to a storm on a recent Friday, some patients had to delay treatment until the following Monday.

Brown is one of the organizers behind a cohort of residents who have been rallying near the Bonavista hospital every week, demanding better health-care services in their region.

"You've got to look at the people and what they're actually going through. This is how they're living. They need this service to live. And it's their choice, and they're fighting to live every day," she said.

'The missing link'

In a statement, an Eastern Health spokesperson said the health authority maintains dialysis when the appropriate staff — a physician or nurse practitioner and respiratory therapist — are available.

"When coverage is unavailable, patients are diverted to Clarenville," said the spokesperson.

Emergency care and dialysis aren't the only services that have been closing. Patients requiring chemotherapy and acute care are also diverted when no doctor is available.

Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Jade Way, a Bonavista salon owner, gets a front row seat to her clients' lives, and she says the closures have them worried.

"They're just voicing their concerns on their family members, their kids, their own health issues, their possibility of having to move because they can't rely on consistent health care here because of closures," she said.

She said when the emergency room closed over the holidays, her clients were in a "panic."

"Everyone was gonna thinking, 'OK, if there is a car accident, we could lose someone. If there's anything really happening, like we could have some serious consequences,'" she said.

The provincial government has announced recruitment and retention initiatives for rural health. Recently, the town council announced plans to implement its own incentives.

But so far, Way said, things are getting worse. The emergency room closed again Friday and is scheduled to remain closed until at least Tuesday.

"I just don't really understand where the missing link is," Way said.

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