A man who fell and broke his hip while walking in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax last Sunday waited 2.5 hours for an ambulance to arrive. The nearest emergency department was less than four kilometres away at the Halifax Infirmary, but no ambulance was available until paramedics arrived from Milford in Hants County.  

It’s an upsetting story that is shockingly reminiscent of the circumstances reported by Anne MacPhee a couple years ago. Her husband, Kelly, suffered a heart attack and died waiting for an ambulance to come to their home near the Armdale roundabout.

Thankfully, this story has a much happier outcome. Donna McInnis tells the Halifax Examiner her 78-year-old husband, Kevin, is doing well following his hip surgery. That may be partly due to the kindness of a stranger. As her husband lay on the asphalt parking lot beside the container pier, the first person to come to their aid was a passerby who happened to be a nurse from the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre. 

“She showed me how to immobilize his leg,” McInnis said. “I sat there for 2.5 hours with my knee against his knee. She gave me her jacket and her dog blanket. She helped him get through the first hour while I called the ambulance and kept thinking, ‘Where are they? Where are they?’” 

Paramedics were exceptionally busy

McInnis said the dispatcher told her they were exceptionally busy that afternoon and was unable to provide any ETA for when an ambulance might arrive. Her husband had slipped off the low concrete wall at about 4pm. By 6pm, as the weather began to cool and the sun was going down, McInnis said she was beginning to get frightened.  

“It’s the anxiety of not knowing what is going to happen,” she said. “Obviously, all the personnel who deal with you are just fine and do their job well. But I think everyone is saying we did need a different system so that the paramedics and their ambulances are not tied up. Once they did get him to emergency, they weren’t free to leave him because there was no place to leave him until the hospital could take over responsibility.”  

According to McInnis, the paramedics stayed with her husband until almost midnight.  

Donna McInnis and her husband drove into the city from their home in the St. Margarets Bay area last Sunday to view the big military ships in the harbour. Her husband had spent most of the week chopping wood and cleaning up from Fiona. In hindsight, she wonders if the fall had happened in St Margarets Bay if the volunteer fire department might have been able to respond more quickly.  

Ambulances lined up at the Halifax Infirmary. Photo: Tim Bousquet

This latest reported incident — which NDP leader Claudia Chender recounted during Question Period on Friday — raises several questions. In the past year, the Houston government has hired another 100 non-paramedic drivers to move patients between hospitals to free up paramedics so they can answer emergency calls. According to the health minister, percentage of paramedics’ time spent on patient transfers has dropped from 85% to 22%.  

Minister says wait time ‘not acceptable’

Health Minister Michelle Thompson acknowledges there are vacant paramedic positions, partly as a result of a slowdown in training during COVID and many workers off on disability. The province has installed more lifts and better equipment in ambulances to improve working conditions. And efforts have been made at the Halifax Infirmary emergency department to improve patient flow.  

So, how could someone with an urgent medical need wait 2.5 hours for an ambulance? 

“I think it is a long time to wait and it is not acceptable,” Thompson told reporters in response to that question. “And I think we have to continue to work very hard to understand what the issue was on that particular day, which I don’t know yet.”  

“We need to increase the number of health care workers that we have. I am pleased that the Nova Scotia Department of Health is working with the union and the company [Emergency Management Services] to understand where they need more support and help paramedics respond more quickly.” 

Keeping the paramedics who do graduate is another big issue. Chender says Nova Scotia has an excellent reputation for training, but many people who graduate then leave for other provinces where the wages are higher.

Premier: it’s ‘disrespectful’ to say changes aren’t working

Premier Tim Houston acknowledged adequate compensation is “part of the equation” in solving ongoing frustrations with the emergency health system. Chender noted that despite more drivers and other changes to improve patient flow at the emergency departments at major hospitals, stories like those about Kevin continue to surface. 

Here’s a portion of the final exchange between Chender and Houston on this topic during today’s Question Period: 

Chender:  

Ambulance response times have got longer and longer despite the direct-to-transfer system instituted this spring. The average off-load times are climbing as well [where ambulances wait to hand over patients at Emergency Departments]. Whatever this government is doing is not working. This government ran on an election promise to fix health care. When will we see the results?

Houston:  

It’s very easy to get impatient. But I ask Nova Scotians to trust the people working on the front lines of health care who are bending over backwards to fix the foundations of a very broken system. It will take time; I wish it was faster but to say the things that are taking place aren’t working is disrespectful to our health care professionals who are driving that change.

Thompson said Nova Scotians should continue to call 911 if they are faced with an emergency situation and have confidence they will receive the best care possible.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. I am betting that there will be a windfall of funding in the year leading up to the next provincial election.

  2. “I ask Nova Scotians to trust the people working on the front lines of health care who are bending over backwards to fix the foundations of a very broken system.”
    Nobody’s criticizing the people on the front lines – we know they are not responsible for the problems, or for fixing them. That’s the government’s problem. And it is not “a very broken system.” It’s just underfunded, at all levels, including those underpaid front line workers, which Houston apparently recognizes.

    The standard government response is usually that they can’t just throw money at the system. Why not? That’s what is needed – adequate funding. And the province has the money – they just need to make their priority the residents instead of a few businesses.