Frontline health care workers are renewing their pleas for help as emergency room wait times at the Red Deer Regional Hospital continue to balloon, hitting what doctors are calling "unprecedented" highs.
The posted wait time spiked over the weekend, topping out at nearly 18 hours during the early morning hours on Sunday.
"It was awful," said Dr. Timothy Gash, an ER physician who was working over the weekend.
He's never seen anything like it.
"Our system is struggling tremendously with emergency department overcrowding and access block for patients."
According to Gash, patients are very sick.
In addition, worsening staffing shortages are leading to ER bed closures and there are backlogs of admitted patients waiting, often for days, to be moved upstairs.
Between Sept. 27 and Oct. 3, the hospital's posted waits exceeded ten hours on four different occasions, according to the the Alberta Health Services' emergency department wait times website.
ER wait times at Red Deer Regional Hospital
Gash is not aware of any patients who actually waited 18 hours over the weekend, but he said the facility is running at up to 120 per cent capacity and staff have a constant feeling of dread.
"The longer patients are kept in the waiting room and the longer emergency in patients are trapped in an emergency department, not getting into the hospital, they suffer worse outcomes," he said.
"We need immediate help."
The beleaguered Red Deer hospital — which has struggled with bed shortages for years -- is slated for a $1.8 billion expansion. But construction, which has yet to begin, is not expected to be complete until 2030-2031.
Nurses in tears
Sue Beatson, a registered nurse at the Red Deer hospital, said her colleagues are so concerned about patient safety, they can sometimes be found crying in the break room.
"Nurses are having a hard time providing the care that Albertans need or require," said Beatson, president of the local chapter of the United Nurses of Alberta.
"[It's] one of the worst periods of times that I've ever experienced and I've been nursing for over 30 years," she said.
With so many patients and so few doctors, nurses and beds the waiting room often becomes a de-facto treatment area.
"Lab work is being drawn, ECGs are being done. Now, at times, there's physicians that are coming out and seeing patients and actually writing orders on patients while they're waiting."
Doctors call it a "crisis"
"I probably can't put into words how much concern I have," said Dr. Bryce Henderson, an orthopedic surgeon who also worked over the weekend.
"It's a crisis is what it is."
According to Henderson, the hospital was so overwhelmed, two children with serious injuries had to be airlifted out to other hospitals
"In a perfect world we would take them straight to the OR and get them fixed...I'll always assess just to make sure nothing is missed. But I just talked to the doctors in [emergency] and the trauma bay and said 'you've got to keep that helicopter warm,' because we counted our cases and we were 100 hours behind in surgeries."
Delays, according to Henderson, can lead to complications, longer hospital stays, and in some cases serious deterioration in patients.
"We need some action here or we're going to see some dire outcomes."
Red Deer internal medicine specialist, Dr. Kym Jim, said wait times are surging despite efforts to relieve the pressure by shipping patients to smaller hospitals in the zone.
"It goes beyond staffing...We do not have enough physical space, " he said.
"And for those patients that we have in hospital we need services to get them out of hospital. We need our home care system enhanced. We need our outpatient clinics enhanced to be able to deal with patients who are discharged from hospital a little bit earlier."
More patients, higher acuity
Alberta Health Services said the Red Deer Hospital is dealing with increasing patient volumes and patients who are sicker.
"Capacity has become increasingly challenged in recent days, despite efforts to free up bed spaces, and this is resulting in some long waits in the ED at times, particularly for less-urgent patients," spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement.
But Williamson said no patients would have actually waited for 18 hours over the weekend.
"Wait-times are a snapshot in time, fluctuate throughout the day, and can be longer in the early morning when staffing levels are lower. Wait-times generally improve significantly when the day shift begins," he said, noting the estimated waits dropped to 2.5 hours by 7:30 a.m. on Sunday.
The wait on Monday afternoon was five hours and 33 minutes.
"All patients are triaged on arrival at the emergency department and are prioritized depending on the urgency of their condition or injury. Critically ill or injured patients will always be seen immediately," said Williamson.
Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston has been worried about the state of the hospital for years. He's also calling for urgent action.
"The status quo — what we have now — is not working," he said.
"People are voting with their feet...[Doctors and nurses] are not willing to put in the hours. They're not willing to put up with a completely inadequate hospital. We've been able to function basically on their hearts and their dedication to the calling and that's being exhausted now."
Like the frontline staff, Johnston is worried about patients. But he's also concerned the hospital crisis is having wider implications, making the city less attractive to potential new residents.
"What's the incentive for a person from Ontario, or from British Columbia or from Manitoba to move to Red Deer when they know the medical care is substandard?"