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Surgeon’s departure has northeast Saskatchewan residents feeling vulnerable

File footage shows a surgeon at work. File / Global News

The recent departure of the only surgeon and temporary closure of the operating room at Flin Flon General Hospital have nearby Saskatchewan residents considering drastic steps to restore health care options.

“Because of the situation, which we feel is life-threatening, we’re going to have to move to a bigger city,” said Denare Beach resident Elizabeth Wooley.

“This is a huge concern up here.”

Residents of Denare Beach, as well as several other Saskatchewan communities and First Nations in the region, can access health care at the Manitoba Northern Health Region (NHR)-managed facility under a cost-covering agreement between the two provinces.

An agreement between Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments covers the costs of Saskatchewan residents who use Flin Flon General Hospital, regardless of the Saskatchewan community the person is from. Global News

The recent departures of Flin Flon General Hospital’s only operating surgeon and anesthetist, however, mean that emergency services in the immediate area had to be limited.

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“We just thought, like, ‘OK, what the heck is going on?'” said Wooley. “We’re not the only ones this is affecting here.”

READ MORE: 8 new coronavirus cases in Saskatchewan, outbreak declared over at Meadow Lake Hospital

“The Northern Health Region was left with no other choice than to suspend operating room services at the hospital,” NHR Communications Coordinator Twyla Storey said in a statement to Global News earlier this week.

The ER at the facility is still operational, but the closest surgical operating rooms in Saskatchewan are in Prince Albert and Saskatoon. The nearest OR in Manitoba is in The Pas.

“In the short term, a contingency plan has been developed that will see all surgical cases presenting to the Flin Flon General Hospital being transferred to The Pas or Winnipeg as is deemed clinically appropriate or in using your example of a Denare Beach, Saskatchewan resident, dependent on the assessment of the patient, they would be transferred via air to Saskatoon, not Winnipeg,” the statement continued.

Elizabeth Wooley, however, said the idea of waiting for an air ambulance isn’t enough to ease her concerns about emergencies.

“I can tell you, as someone who has had a ruptured appendix, if that had happened to me up here and there was no surgeon in Flin Flon, I wouldn’t have made it.”

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She said her and her husband have put their Denare Beach commercial property up for sale to help finance a possible move to be closer to emergency surgical care.

READ MORE: Sask. nurses’ union worried over handling of COVID-19 case in Regina’s Pasqua Hospital

In a letter addressed to Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding, Wooley also detailed a 2019 incident in which her husband needed emergency air transport when the local hospital didn’t have the “proper equipment to stop the bleeding” from a urological incident.

She says that after two hours passed without confirmation of when air transport could arrive, the doctor asked her to drive her husband to Saskatoon for treatment as “the window was closing before he went into septic shock.”

She says the trip took five and a half hours and involved passing through areas with no cell phone service.

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Wooley said she hadn’t received a response to her letter as of last Sunday.

Global News reached out to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health, who said in a statement, “As we know from experience in Saskatchewan, recruitment of specialists to smaller communities where they cannot practice their full scope can be challenging in a competitive recruitment environment.

“We will continue to be in communication with Manitoba Health and the Saskatchewan Health Authority to ensure appropriate access to our citizens.”

In the first 11 months of 2019-20, there were 61 surgeries performed on Saskatchewan residents at Flin Flon General Hospital; four were emergency or urgent surgery, according to the ministry.

Fixed-wing ambulance services for Saskatchewan residents are provided by Saskatchewan Air Ambulance.

The Manitoba Nurse’s Union also expressed concern over the service suspension, after the NHR issued a 90-day employment security notice on April 22nd.

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