Frustrated Whitbourne residents protest ongoing ER closure — and promise more rallies to come
Loud chants resounded in Whitbourne on Sunday, as about 200 protesters gathered in front of the town's health centre to voice their frustration over the ongoing closure of its emergency department.
The protest was organized by Elaine Thorne, Gail Piercey and Joan Reid, who want to see 24-hour emergency services reinstated at the William H. Newhook Health Centre.
"People have lost their lives because the distance they need to travel to get the care they need," said Thorne, a resident of neighbouring Markland.
"This rally is just the beginning. The government needs to know that we are here and we are going to fight. We are not going to settle for anything else but what we had prior to the COVID."
Due to staff shortages related to COVID-19, the emergency room first closed on Jan. 7, 2022. It reopened about a month later, on Feb. 4, but emergency services were again suspended due to staffing challenges on June 27.
What was meant to be a temporary closure has been extended by Eastern Health week after week ever since. The latest extension, announced Friday, will be in effect until 8 a.m. on March 6. At that point, the town's ER will have been closed continuously for 36 weeks — or just over eight months.
That means around 20,000 area residents the Newhook Health Centre usually serves have no other option but to travel about 50 kilometres to Placentia, 60 kilometres to Carbonear or 90 kilometres to St. John's.
That's too far, said Thorne, who has a young daughter.
"Just knowing that I would have to travel so far if something happens to her, it breaks my heart knowing that the care that was here, is not here right now," she said.
Fellow protest organizer Joan Reid of Dildo agrees. A lot of people in her community, she said, also depend on the ER in nearby Whitbourne, such as her aging parents and other seniors.
"I have a home-care agency where my seniors are very stressed out when they know that they can't come here in case of an emergency," said Reid.
But Whitbourne's ER doesn't just serve area residents — it also takes in those injured in highway accidents.
Wade Smith, owner of Smith's Ambulance Services in Whitbourne, knows first-hand how crucial the town's ER is as triage and treatment site.
"It's like any emergency: you don't know what's going to happen but you need to be prepared when it does happen, so that you can respond," said Smith. "Right now, we got a weak link in that response."
Since the ER was closed in June, Smith's crews have had to travel farther to bring patients to hospitals and are therefore gone longer.
The result, Smith said, is being in "red alert" — when an ambulance isn't available — more often than not. On top of that are delays due to winter road conditions, offload delays and, due to provincewide staff shortages, a bigger area for his crews to cover. But, said Smith, his request for extra staff was denied.
"This past weekend alone, we've had to take our employees off for fatigue, leaving the red alert," said Smith. "It's concerning because these are young people who just got into the industry."
The overall feeling in Whitbourne, he said, is "just pure frustration."
For protester Patti Kennedy, the closures in her community — and in other rural areas of the province, including Bonavista and Bell Island — stem from overarching issues in the health-care system, like the employment of travel nurses, nurse practitioner exam fees and the MCP billing system, which excludes nurse practitioners.
"We have a state-of-the-art facility here that was built after the closure of the Cottage Hospital," said Kennedy. "This has nothing to do with government cuts or physicians, it has to do with government making good use and utilizing our medical people here in our province."
As a lifelong Whitbourne resident, Kennedy knows the value the ER has held for residents over the years — and examples of why it is still needed today, she said, can be found right across the community. With Whitbourne's ER closed, she said, their own mayor, Hilda Whelan, had to go to Carbonear for followup cancer care.
Kennedy said people in Whitbourne are prepared to fight for their ER — just like they fought to save their elementary school seven years ago.
"This is on a scale of such a bigger magnitude because you can have a school, you can have a police station, you can have a store," she said.
"If you don't have well, healthy people, and people like fire and rescue, and our paramedics and our ambulance drivers, you have nothing because there'll be nobody here to take advantage of all the good."
Protest organizer Reid agrees. If nothing changes, she said, they will take their protest to St. John's next.
"We're not going to stop until the government gets their head where it needs to be to get this place reopened," she said.
"It can't stay closed. It's just too many lives that depend on this place."