After spending 12 hours in a packed ER waiting room, a Winnipeg woman is speaking out about what she witnessed, expressing an urgent need for more resources for hospital staff and Winnipeg’s inner-city population.
Julie Van Zyl was in severe pain from an ectopic pregnancy and thought her fallopian tube had ruptured when she went to the Health Sciences Centre emergency department on the afternoon of Jan. 17. When she left the hospital around 3:30 the next morning, she couldn’t yet process what she had seen or heard.
“It was just a really hard situation to see, because it was pure chaos. And I don’t think the nurses and doctors stopped for a minute,” she said.
The province has said overall hospitalizations are now on the decline in this Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but intensive-care unit admissions are still on the rise, and many of those patients will have first showed up in an ER waiting room. On Tuesday, hospitalizations in Manitoba increased by two over the past 24 hours, for a total of 737 people with COVID-19 admitted to hospital, including 54 in intensive care. Only 138 out of 1,433 medical beds were available in hospitals across Manitoba as of Monday evening.
Van Zyl had tested positive on a COVID-19 rapid test and had been isolating at home with no symptoms of the virus before the pain took her to the ER, so she waited in a curtained area full of other COVID-positive patients, some of whom were sleeping on the floor.
“I was hesitating, ‘Do I go to the ER?’ But I was in pain to the point where I couldn’t walk. So it was that horrible feeling of, I’m COVID-positive, but I have to go to the hospital,” she said.
As they waited, some patients got increasingly angry, banging walls and begging for painkillers or some food. Ambulances kept pulling up with more patients, and loudspeaker announcements kept urging staff to work overtime. She heard one ER patient say he’d been stabbed. Another had eye pain. Someone else appeared to need a bandage changed after suffering frostbite, Van Zyl said.
“There wasn’t enough space, there wasn’t enough… staff, and you could tell that they didn’t feel like they had the resources that they need,” she said.
“They’re just treading water.”
Van Zyl said she heard staff offering cab fare to some patients, telling them their vitals were stable and asking if they’d like to go home and book a doctor’s appointment for the next day, rather than continue to wait in the ER overnight. They declined.
“This is an issue that I imagine HSC has faced forever, which is people coming to (the ER), because that’s the only place they know to go when they’re having problems, but their problems aren’t emergencies,” Van Zyl said.
Eventually, she got an ultrasound that determined she hadn’t suffered a rupture. But because she had COVID, there was limited space where the ultrasound could be performed. She said she was taken into the hospital’s former family room adjacent to the waiting room. There was no lock on the door. On the other side of it, a fight broke out between waiting patients, Van Zyl said.
“I was there 12 hours for something life-threatening and there were people who were probably there hours and hours more than I was,” she said. “It was so sad.”
As someone who’s worked in the social-services sector for more than a decade, Van Zyl said the experience made clear to her that leaders need to support health-care staff and invest more resources for people who are homeless or transient, to lessen the burden on the health-care system.
“I really feel for the inner-city and the health-care system, and then COVID on top of that — it’s just really shined the light on the lack of support and the lack of resources… nothing’s working right now.”
A spokesperson for Shared Health said: “Patients seeking care in an emergency department are immediately assessed by a triage nurse and prioritized for care according to their needs. Those in most urgent/emergent need of care are seen very quickly. Others, whose health concerns may be less urgent, can expect to wait longer particularly if more urgent patients present for care during the course of their wait.”
— with files from Danielle Da Silva