After ER visit, mom calls it 'alarming' that paramedics are held up for hours with patients

Brianna Barnes said her son Julian's reaction was pretty severe, with the two-year-old breaking out in hives all over his body, swelling and also wheezing. (Submitted by Brianna Barnes - image credit)
Brianna Barnes said her son Julian's reaction was pretty severe, with the two-year-old breaking out in hives all over his body, swelling and also wheezing. (Submitted by Brianna Barnes - image credit)

After arriving at the hospital with her two-year-old son via ambulance, Amherstburg, Ont., resident Brianna Barnes hunkered down for a long wait. What she didn't expect was for multiple paramedics to be in the queue alongside her.

According to her count, Barnes says there was a hallway filled with about 16 paramedics waiting to hand off patients to the hospital. That includes two who were with her son.

"I am watching critical services and critical resources being used essentially as a Band-Aid for the hospital," said Barnes, who waited about nine hours before her son was admitted.

The situation Barnes and her son witnessed has become all too common, with Ontario's hospital system being overwhelmed by increasing demand, understaffing and limited space.

In Windsor, Ont., emergency services are being increasingly relied upon, which has led to a rise in the number of minutes in a month where an ambulance is unavailable — also known as a Code Black.

Last month, Barnes' son Julian woke up with a severe allergic reaction — hives, swelling and wheezing. A 911 operator told her to give him an EpiPen shot as an ambulance headed their way.

Once they got to Windsor Regional Hospital's Metropolitan Campus, Barnes says they were checked in and told to wait in a hallway. Due to Julian's reaction, and the use of an EpiPen, paramedics had to monitor him.

But as the hours passed, she says the hallway quickly filled up with more paramedics watching over their patients.

Jennifer La Grassa/CBC
Jennifer La Grassa/CBC

"The fact that we are utilizing this dire resource that we're hearing horror stories about across the province and in our own area, about people having to wait for ambulances, because they're sitting in [emergency] for what? What are we doing?" said Barnes.

"This was very much a way for me to see how broken it is and where they're just patching where they can."

Barnes tells CBC News the care her son received was "amazing" and her frustrations lie with the fact that emergency staff were being held back from being in the community and helping other people.

Since her son didn't meet the weight requirement for Benadryl, the paramedics needed permission from the hospital to administer it, meaning they couldn't do much, according to Barnes.

And according to Essex-Windsor EMS, this is often the case when patients are inside the hospital with paramedics — permission is needed to treat them.

Paramedics 'frustrated'

Essex-Windsor EMS Chief Bruce Krauter says this happens frequently for paramedics. He says they can spend their whole shift just waiting to offload a patient to the hospital.

Krauter says they've had a patient spend 24 hours on an ambulance stretcher, waiting to be admitted.

County of Essex/
County of Essex/

He says this is because hospitals are often at capacity and don't have available beds, and that emergency rooms prioritize patients based on urgency.

But he added, in the past two years they're noticing more people using the emergency department as a family doctor's office and not for urgent situations.

"What we're also seeing is people, especially in the Windsor-Essex region, are using ambulances more frequently than the provincial average to get into the emergency department, anywhere from 10 to 15 per cent higher than the provincial average," said Krauter.

"One reason could be people think they can use ambulances to skirt the waiting room and get ahead of the queue, and that is just not the case."

He says paramedics are "frustrated" and organizations are doing what they can to get them back to doing their job.

CBC News reached out to Windsor Regional Hospital, but it declined to comment.

Spokesperson Steve Erwin said in an email the hospital has spoken to this issue "numerous times" and that it happens when there are "backlogs in the [emergency department]/bed availability."

Last week, the hospital announced a new program with Windsor police where an officer and a nurse will pair up to treat people dealing with mental health and addictions issues in the community.

At the announcement, the hospital said it sees a lot of people with mental health and addictions issues use the emergency room when they don't need it and hope this program frees up space.

Organizations working to reduce offload delay

Barnes says the whole experience has left her scared for her community, and more hesitant if she needs an ambulance in the future.

"If there's a crisis in this city, if something happens, people are going to die, because there are not enough resources and I worry about it from a personal level," she said.

"Our community is growing, we're seeing an increase in a lot of different things, from illnesses to overdoses to age, the population in [Windsor-Essex] is getting older, so what are we doing to treat those or future proof ourselves for that?"

When asked about the concerns Barnes has, Krauter says if people believe they are in an emergency, they should always call 911.

Jennifer La Grassa/CBC
Jennifer La Grassa/CBC

But adds there are new initiatives that have been put in place to prevent Code Blacks, such as having two paramedics monitor up to four patients in hospital and offloading a person into the emergency waiting room if their condition isn't severe.

The hospital also recently hired offload nurses or assistants, who can assess and watch patients instead of EMS.

In recent years, there's also programs that respond to repeat emergency users, mental health calls and elderly community members who are waiting to get into a long-term care home.

This fall, Krauter says their model of care is shifting to allow EMS to connect people with care options outside of the ER, such as urgent care or telehealth.

But he also encouraged people to check out Essex-Windsor EMS' website, Make the Right Call, which can help people better judge which situations require an ambulance.