Jennifer Cramm has been having nightmares.
The Baie Verte resident is worried about what could happen if her three-year-old son, who has severe food allergies, goes into anaphylaxis while the emergency room in the community on Newfoundland's north coast is closed.
"It just is unbearable. I cannot think about it," Cramm said Monday.
The nearest emergency room is in Grand Falls-Windsor, about a two-hour drive away — time her son may not have if he goes into anaphylactic shock.
Cramm has been living in Baie Verte for about seven years.
"I don't want to leave. I have a home here. I have a good job. My husband has a good job. You know, I can deal with not having a Walmart down the road. I cannot deal with not having a hospital a few minutes away," she said.
Emergency room closures have become common in some parts of the province, as regional health authorities try to fix staffing shortages across the Newfoundland and Labrador health-care system.
Central Health, the regional health authority responsible for care in the community of about 1,300, updates its website whenever the emergency room closes. According to those notifications, the emergency room closed for nearly 12 days in August, in total, due to staff shortages.
'A life was lost'
Municipal politicians from rural areas affected by the closures have said they're worried that someone could lose their life. Kyle Payne, Baie Verte fire chief, said he believes someone in his community already has.
Payne said paramedics called the fire department on Aug. 2 to assist with CPR. The Baie Verte emergency room was closed because no doctor was available, so the paramedics were preparing to bring the patient to Grand Falls-Windsor.
"By the time we got there was nothing really we could do. A life was lost that day," Payne said.
Later that day, the remainder of the closure, which was expected to last until Aug. 3, was cancelled.
When asked if the closure was cancelled because of the incident, a spokesperson for Central Health said the closure was cancelled because the health authority was able to find a locum physician.
"We are always searching for locums to fill gaps in physician services," said the spokesperson.
Payne said there's no way to know for sure if the person's life could have been saved if the emergency room had been open, but the possibility is "arguable." He described the incident in a letter to Liberal MHA Brian Warr, Conservative MP Clifford Small and Central Health CEO Andrée Robichaud.
"There's not really much more I can do to show them how dire it is, just to tell them exactly the truth," he said.
A spokesperson said Central Health has no plans to permanently close emergency services in Baie Verte.
Health minister commends chief
Provincial Health Minister Tom Osborne said he commends Payne for writing the letter, and said he's responded.
"He's looking out for the residents in the area in which he lives," he said.
Progressive Conservative health critic Paul Dinn said Payne's letter shows that first responders, including firefighters and paramedics, have become desperate.
"I can't imagine what they're going through when they have to pick up a patient and they're still hours away from where they need to be," he said.
Dinn said the government's recruitment and retention efforts are moving too slowly.
Osbourne said the Department of Health and regional health authorities are working to reduce emergency room diversions and closures.
"It is something we're, we're very, very aware of and, you know, we're working to improve recruitment and retention in this province," he said.
Osborne pointed to bursary programs, signing bonus programs, and the province's new office of recruitment and retention as an example of the government's efforts to recruit physicians and other health-care professionals.