Jack Wiebe knows firsthand that Manitoba’s intensive care unit beds haven’t always been available to those who needed them these past few months.
While waiting for cardiac surgery, Jack suffered a heart attack in October. He waited another 10 days at St. Boniface Hospital for a surgery.
The morning of Nov. 2, not far from the operating room door, his surgeon delivered bad news: the procedure was postponed due to a shortage of intensive care unit beds and nurses.
“My heart just … fell,” said Jack, 67. “It’s hard to believe that this is real. We have this whole surgery team … and then all of a sudden, bang, it’s gone.”
Last week, Heather Stefanson said Manitoba’s recent request for 15-to-30 intensive care unit nursing staff from the federal government was in response to a “bit of a spike” the week before. She said Manitoba’s ICU capacity has otherwise remained “relatively stable since a couple of months ago.” In a statement, Shared Health said the same.
Jack’s experience suggests there have been barriers to critical care beyond the recent spike.
“He had a heart attack waiting for surgery,” said Dr. Dan Roberts, a critical care doctor at Health Sciences Centre. “To say … that there’s been no impact from this is not correct.”
From September through November, Shared Health says ICU occupancy fluctuated between the low 80s- to mid-90s. The number of COVID-19 patients varied between the high teens to the mid-20s for much of that time.
ICU admissions began to climb in recent weeks but has otherwise been “relatively stable” this fall, a spokesperson said.
“If everything is OK then why have the surgical lists compounded?” said Roberts.
In early December, Shared Health conceded it did not have the staff to scale up to its fourth-wave goal of 110 ICU beds; the pre-pandemic capacity was 72 ICU beds.
Coming Omicron impact
The highly contagious Delta variant has driven Manitoba’s fourth wave so far. But with the even more contagious Omicron variant projected to spread rapidly in the coming weeks, Roberts suspects current ICU and backlog issues will get much worse.
“All of these issues … are going to become trivial compared to what we’re looking at in the next six weeks,” he said. “They have to shut down if they’re not going to have a tsunami in January.”
Over the weekend, the Canadian Red Cross agreed to send eight ICU nurses to Manitoba this week. Roberts said those resources are “completely inadequate.”
‘Can’t believe it’s happening’
Jack is glad Manitoba asked for help. “Obviously, we need it,” he said.
His ICU bed shortage issue happened over a month before the recent spike.
Jack learned in early October he needed open heart bypass surgery. Due to a backlog, he was told he might have to wait until around the end of the year.
Three weeks later he suffered a mild heart attack and was admitted to St. Boniface Hospital.
Moments before his Nov. 2 surgery, and after a week-and-a-half in hospital, Jack learned there was no ICU bed for him.
“The surgeon came and he said, ‘Mr. Wiebe, I’m sorry your surgery has been cancelled because we can’t get you a [ICU] bed,” he said. “You just can’t believe it’s happening.”
They tried and failed to get him in for surgery that afternoon. The plan was to try again Friday. As his condition worsened, Jack’s surgery was bumped again. He grew anxious.
His family advocated for surgery, and the hospital managed to get Jack in Sunday, Nov. 7.
It was a success, but Sharlene Wiebe said it was hard watching her husband deteriorate while he waited.
“It’s extremely frustrating, you know, to watch what’s happening and to be part of it,” Sharlene said.
The Wiebes are grateful for the care Jack received. They remain concerned about ICU capacity.
“Big picture … the more people are going to get vaccinated, the sooner we’re going to get our health system back on track,” said Jack.
‘Should have been in ICU’
Cheryl Kotelniski’s family says she also faced a barrier to ICU care months before the recent crush of COVID-19 patients.
“We obviously need more staffing,” she said. “This has been going on for quite a while.”
Kotelniski, who lives with chronic illnesses, was conscious when admitted to Seven Oaks urgent care on Sept. 17. She passed out and was transferred to the Grace Hospital, then to HSC, all in the same day.
Her family was told she would get an ICU bed at HSC, said her daughter Christine Heuring.
Instead, Heuring said her mother was kept in an emergency room bed for two-and-a-half days because there was no ICU bed available.
“She made it into what was called the high observation unit, but really … should have been in ICU, as I had to have multiple conversations with doctors about end-of-life care, which was awful and horrifying,” said Heuring.
Doctors found Kotelniski’s kidneys were on the verge of failing due to sepsis. They managed to stabilize her.
She awoke after five days, alone and in the grip of hallucinations.
“She thought that we had abandoned her,” said Heuring
“I was terrified, I was heartbroken,” said Kotelniski.
She was discharged after 11 days.
Neither fault the doctors or nurses, who Kotelniski says were run ragged. Heuring’s frustrations over ICUs lie with provincial leaders.
“Nobody seems to care to fix the problem,” she said. “It’s very frustrating, two years in almost, to think we have learned nothing.”
This story was possible in part thanks to Manitobans who filled out CBC’s survey on the pronounced effect COVID-19 is having on Manitoba’s health-care system. In it, we asked health-care workers, patients and their loved ones to send us their top concerns and questions about care during the pandemic.
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