EDMONTON – Nurse Sherrie Whiffen says staff at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray practice evacuating the hospital every year, but she never had to do the real thing until Tuesday night.
Whiffen said she had to remain calm in order to reassure patients and their families. They started with the long-term care patients on the fourth floor and worked their way down. All staff pulled together to get everyone into ambulances or on to city buses.
But then there was a moment that shook her.
“I did look up to the hill, up to the left, and there was flames and fire right there,” Whiffen recalled Wednesday morning, shortly after arriving at the evacuation centre in Edmonton. “When you see those bright orange flames burning, yeah, it’s scary.”
Whiffen composed herself.
“I said, ‘Just give me a moment, turned around, and I was OK. I kept it together. It’s crazy, looking back”
Dr. Verna Yu, interim president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, said all 105 patients at the hospital were moved to three different reception areas outside Fort McMurray on Tuesday night and were moved to Edmonton by Wednesday morning.
Yu said some of the patients, including nine babies in the neonatal unit and their mothers, were flown on WestJet planes to Edmonton.
She said she was grateful and proud of Health Services staff, who completed the evacuation in two hours.
“Don’t forget that those employees and staff also had their families to worry about. We’ve actually reserved 92 rooms locally in Edmonton to help house them and we’re working hard to connect them with their families so they know where they are,” Yu told a news conference in Edmonton on Wednesday.
Whiffen said that after leaving the hospital in Fort McMurray, she ended up at a reception centre at Suncor’s Firebag oilsands site north of the city. The facility has its own runway and she said there were several WestJet planes that flew patients out. She helped triage patients for transport, and then early Wednesday she took off in a Boeing 737 for Edmonton International Airport.
Her sister, who lives in Edmonton, met her at the evacuation centre. Still wearing work clothes, Whiffen was finally off the clock after going more than a full day without sleep.
“I’m so proud of the nurses. I don’t want to get emotional, but when times get like that, it’s amazing what you can do. You pull everybody together – patients, families, administration, all the different units – we pulled it all together and we got the job done,” Whiffen said.