Patient dies while waiting for care in Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre emergency department

A patient died this week while waiting for treatment in the crowded emergency department waiting room at Manitoba’s largest hospital, where nurses say they are so overwhelmed they simply can’t keep an eye on everyone all the time.

“While privacy legislation prevents us from speaking to specifics of a patient case, we are able to confirm that we are investigating a potential critical incident that occurred during a one-hour window on Feb. 27 in the [Health Sciences Centre] emergency department,” a Shared Health spokesperson told CBC News in an email on Wednesday.

“An initial review of the circumstances surrounding this event is underway.”

It’s unsettling news but also not unexpected, Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said.

“I’ve been hearing from nurses in the ER for quite some time with regards to their fear that incidents like this would happen, just because of the working conditions and the lack of staff to monitor patients,” she said.

“It is a shame and condolences to the family that this happened. It is such a shame that our health-care system has fallen into this disrepair.”

The HSC emergency department is routinely filled with patients waiting for a bed in one of the hospital units, she said.

“So what happens is those patients come in, they’re ill, they need to be admitted, and there’s no place to put them. So they end up languishing in the emergency department, which then of course backlogs the waiting room,” Jackson said.

“And then those nurses are not only caring for patients that need emergency care, but they’re also caring for patients that should be admitted, that need changing, need to be fed, etc. So it’s just a domino effect in that emergency department.”

Nurses try to move the sickest patients closer, where they can keep an eye on them, and shuffle more stable patients to other areas, but it’s not always possible, Jackson said. 

“It’s a shell game,” she said.

Nurses are doing as much as they can, as fast as they can, to monitor and keep patients safe, but at times the HSC emergency is incredibly chaotic and there’s just not enough staff, Jackson said. Some patients are sitting for 12-15 hours, she said.

“It’s very difficult to be able to manage your admitted patients [lined up in hallways] as well as retriaging and monitoring 50-odd patients in the waiting room,” she said.

The situation is the same at every hospital in Winnipeg, she said.

“You will not find an emergency department in this city that doesn’t have patients in hallways at this point. It’s just a reality of our health-care system right now. It’s a reality of our nursing shortage.”