Ontario hospitals happy to help Manitoba’s overwhelmed ICUs, but families, staff feel strain

Out-of-province medical professionals see it as their duty to tend to COVID-19 patients from Manitoba, the continental hot spot for new infections, says the head of critical care at one Ontario hospital network.

“We’re grateful that we’re in a position to help. We take this privilege very seriously,” said Dr. Wael Haddara, the chief of critical care medicine at London Health Science Centre.

“But of course, it does weigh on people that we have had to do this. As you can imagine, families are distressed that their loved ones have to be transferred these great distances.”

Hospitals in 14 communities scattered across Ontario — including Ottawa, Windsor, Sudbury and Thunder Bay — have come to the rescue of the province currently being hardest hit by the pandemic.

With its own intensive care resources overwhelmed, Manitoba has transferred 51 patients to Ontario, two to Saskatchewan and two to Alberta since May 18. Nobody has been transferred out of the province since June 4, Manitoba Shared Health Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa said at a news conference Wednesday.

Dr. Haddara said hospital staff in London, Ont., are mindful some of their current patients live roughly 1,500 kilometres away.

“You are very much aware that this is someone who’s come to you from great distances and that their family that you’re talking to are grappling with this.”

Welcoming patients from away

A little more than three weeks ago, Manitoba’s ICU capacity strained as COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions kept climbing. That forced the transfer of patients suffering from COVID-19 out of province, and away from their families.

One woman died after an attempt to airift her to an Ontario hospital failed. Two other Manitoba patients — Kim Bullard, 57, and a man in his 30s — have died after being transferred to Ontario.

Opposition parties slammed the Manitoba government for needing to transfer patients, the only province to do so. The critics allege Manitoba failed to prepare for a third pandemic wave it knew was coming.

However, hospitals in Ontario were well equipped to accommodate a surge in patients. Many facilities were fresh off accepting COVID-19 patients earlier this year from hard-hit hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area. 

Manitoba needed room as Ontario was starting recover from its third wave, Haddara said. It didn’t give staff, who are currently tending to a number of Manitoba patients, much time for a breather, he said.

“I think people were kind of ready to hopefully see the back of the third wave and then Manitoba went into crisis,” he said.

“I think it was a little bit of disappointment that we’re not quite over and done with the third wave. But thankfully, the numbers are manageable and so people are hanging in.”

Health-care workers run COVID-19 tests on a patient at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre in a December file photo. At Ontario’s Woodstock Hospital, staff members, including those without intensive care experience, have banded together to work as teams, says the hospital’s director of critical care. (Mikaela MacKenzie/The Canadian Press)

Woodstock, a small southwestern Ontario city of 40,000 people, also has what’s in short-supply in the province of nearly 1.4 million people to the west: an available intensive care bed and the staff to care for the patient.

Randy Hicks, Woodstock Hospital’s director of critical care and dialysis, said his community is happy to help their neighbours.

“I will go back to the cliché … it takes a village to raise a child,” Hicks said.

The hospital accepted 10 patients from elsewhere in Ontario earlier this year, and more recently, one from Manitoba. 

Family distressed by transfer

Hicks said the responsibility to care for out-of-province transfers isn’t lost on him and the staff at Woodstock Hospital. It’s a scenario where you “see the pain on the families’ faces and in their expressions” during video check-ins with their loved ones.

“Who would want to leave their province for care, when it wasn’t … your desire to make or have a choice in that decision? I think it’s very hard on the patient and the family left behind” in Manitoba, he said.

Staff members have banded together, including those without intensive care experience, to work as teams. The approach to care has been practised by many hospitals coping with a surge in COVID-19 patients, Hicks said.

“You are seen as a helper, a set of hands, a runner and a basic-care provider, under the supervision of the registered critical care nurse.”

Dr. Waleed Chehadi said conversations have generally been positive with care providers and the families of Manitoba patients who are receiving care at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital. (Submitted by St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital)

In St. Thomas, Ont., a city of nearly 40,000, Dr. Waleed Chehadi stresses that the same standard of care is provided to every patient. The hospital has three COVID-19 patients in intensive care, all of whom are from Manitoba.

“If I were to … cross out the little lettering beside their name that says ‘Manitoba,’ I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference [from other patients], really,” said the chief of staff at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital.

Conversations with the Ontario critical care command table, which determines the hospitals Manitoba patients are sent to, have been positive, said Dr. Chehadi. So have those with the Manitoba physicians handing off the patient and the loved ones left behind.

“I think all patients and their families have been very, very happy to be in a hospital that’s delivering critical care, and they’re very grateful.”