Family, resident raise concerns over sweltering heat at Vancouver long-term care facility

·3 min read
The George Pearson Centre long-term care facility is pictured in Vancouver. The family of a resident at the facility has raised concerns over the level of care being provided during the heat wave.  (Mitch Stark - image credit)
The George Pearson Centre long-term care facility is pictured in Vancouver. The family of a resident at the facility has raised concerns over the level of care being provided during the heat wave. (Mitch Stark - image credit)

On Friday, paramedic Agnes Cayer walked into George Pearson Centre — a long-term care facility in Vancouver — to find her brother, Irek Wegiel, suffocating in a swelteringly hot room.

"It was definitely heat exhaustion," said Cayer.

The window was closed and the blinds were open, causing what she describes as a greenhouse effect. Within moments of entering, Agnes says she felt dizzy from the heat. It was 6 p.m., meaning her brother, who was flushed and red, had been sitting in direct sunlight all day.

"What really broke my heart was that the fan next to my brother was turned off. It was directed at him, but turned off."

Cayer is one of several families of residents at George Pearson who are worried for their loved ones' care and safety at the long-term care facility during Vancouver's heat wave.

Submitted by Agnes Cayer
Submitted by Agnes Cayer

Heat warnings issued Monday stretched across most of B.C. this week, including Metro Vancouver, which saw temperatures as high as 30.4 C.

Wegiel, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, a degenerative condition, relies on a feeding tube and catheter. He has been a resident at George Pearson since 2008, where care allegedly deteriorated during the pandemic, according to Cayer.

'They're rationing fans'

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), which operates George Pearson, says a number of measures were taken in preparation for the heat wave, including equipping all of the roughly 60 long-term care facilities in the region with portable or built-in air conditioning units.

They also installed thermometers throughout the facility to monitor the temperature, instructed staff to close the blinds, and provided fans.

But while there are portable air conditioning units on every floor at George Pearson, they are only used in some hallways, says resident Mitch Stark, adding that cool air is not circulating into the rooms.

Staff have been instructed to keep the windows closed, he says, leaving the rooms at risk of overheating. He also says there aren't enough fans to go around.

"If you ask for a fan, it's kinda like they're rationing fans," he said.

VCH confirmed staff were instructed to keep windows closed, but says patients are at liberty to tell staff if they are uncomfortable.

However, Cayer says her brother's call button is regularly out of his reach. Stark says many patients are non-verbal and do not have the faculties to advocate for their own discomfort.

Staff shortage blamed

When Cayer found her brother, she yelled for help. After Cayer explained the situation, the nurse acknowledged the room was uncomfortably hot and apologized for not switching on the fan or closing the blinds.

Cayer says the nurse blamed short staffing, which has been rampant in health-care facilities across the province, and that the facility's manager told Cayer she was regularly working 16 hours a day.

VCH says they allocated additional funding to support facilities in creating a heat wave response plan, which includes bringing in more staff to help maintain hydration, conduct temperature checks, move residents to cooler areas and use damp cloths to help cool patients.

They also say staff check in with residents "several times" throughout the day.

However, Cayer alleges residents receive nowhere near the amount of care they need, adding that she and her parents spend nearly four hours a day caring for her brother's hygiene and emptying his urine bag. If they don't, Wegiel develops infections and bed sores, she says.

As a paramedic, Cayer says she is sympathetic to staffing issues but that the level of care is not good enough. "I understand that we are all busy, but lives are at stake," she said.

"We love him so much and he deserves much better care than what he's getting at George Pearson."

CBC News has reached out to the Ministry of Health for comment.

LISTEN | Agnes Cayer, Mitch Stark on the quality of care at George Pearson Centre

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