Northern Lights Regional Health Centre - Evacuation of a Hospital
It’s been over two months since wildfire forced the mandatory evacuation of thousands of people in and around Fort McMurray.
Work to restore the city to its full operation continues, and Alberta Health Services (AHS) staff are playing a huge role, as they continue to provide residents with health care supports during this difficult time.
For many, memories of the evacuation remain fresh in their minds. Staff and patients at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre (NLRHC) never expected the wildfire in the area would overtake the city.
While the Fort McMurray Recovery Centre and a nearby mobile home park were evacuated on May 1st, nobody could have known what was to come.
On Monday, May 2nd, leadership at the health centre gathered to discuss contingency plans for the hospital – just in case. They had been receiving regular updates and wanted to be prepared for the worst. Still, everything felt fairly normal.
“We all went home at the end of the day,” recalls Monique Janes, Patient Care Director. “Then on Tuesday things started to change.”
By noon on Tuesday, May 3rd the blaze had escalated. With more neighborhoods under mandatory evacuations, it was difficult for many to keep their minds on work.
“A lot of our nurses had internal struggles,” says Pam Lund, emergency department and Intensive Care Unit manager. “They had children whose schools or daycares were being evacuated and their husbands were working at the plant sites an hour away or out fighting the fire.”
“I was feeling it myself, being a mother with my kids in school,” says Janes. “I made a call to my husband – I said, ‘you’ve got to get the kids out of school. Look after them. I can’t leave the hospital. I have way too much to do.’”
An AHS zone-wide Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) had already been set up, in constant communication with the municipality’s EOC.
“We anticipated that the situation could change very quickly and we wanted to get ahead of that in our decision making,” explains David Matear, Senior Operating Director at the health centre.
“The event accelerated so fast,” he adds. “Just getting the word out about the current status, as opposed to the status 10 minutes ago, was a challenge. We were given as much as information as we could be, given the situation.”
The 30 wheelchair-bound continuing care clients on the fourth floor were one of the biggest concerns. Staff decided to bring them down to the main floor and look after them there, to make sure they could make a swift and comfortable exit, if necessary.
Meanwhile, AHS’ North Zone EOC was working a few steps ahead of the on-the-ground staff to ensure care would continue after evacuation.
At about 5 p.m., the hospital began to evacuate, a wall of fire visible in the nearby ravine.
“We were trying to keep people calm,” explains Janes. “When we got the mandatory evacuation, we were ready. We did it floor by floor.”
Most patients began boarding buses and ambulances. One ventilated intensive care unit patient required an air ambulance. Patients remained amazingly calm and patient during the whole ordeal.
“Not one person complained or cried,” says Lund. “There was no panic whatsoever. They trusted our staff and knew we were going to get them to where it was safe.”
Physicians and staff from all departments helped wherever they could. Nutrition and food services packed up food and water for the trip and unknown destination.
“We had so many people come together,” recalls Janes. “We had our facilities maintenance staff and our protective services guys loading crash carts and equipment – everything that we could need to run an emergency department. We even got the pet cat and bird from the Continuing Care Unit.”
Lund was in one of the first ambulances to leave, along with some of the equipment. Other ambulances and buses followed, with Janes near the middle of the group. Protective services staff stayed behind to help sweep the building several times to ensure no one was left behind.
David Matear was the last to leave the site, amidst thick black smoke. In total, 73 acute care patients and 32 continuing care clients were successfully and safely evacuated in less than two hours.
Once at Suncor’s Firebag site, physicians and staff worked around the clock to ensure patients received the care they needed. From all reports, kindness and compassion abounded.
“I’m so proud of our hospital and what we accomplished,” recalls Janes of the experience.
“Our staff were fearless and selfless,” adds Lund.
That selflessness continued in the weeks to come, with AHS staff from all over the province pulling together to support evacuees, including displaced staff and patients. Reception centres in Edmonton and Calgary, and elsewhere across the province had AHS staff present to assist.
Meanwhile on the ground in Fort McMurray, AHS continued to provide emergency services to the first responders and restoration workers who remained in the city.
On May 14th the Urgent Care Centre (UCC) opened. The centre was made up of Portable Isolation Containment Systems (PICS) units – a series of portable, interconnected, modular shelters allowing AHS to provide healthcare with clean air, clean water and significant space.
“It was a huge task to accomplish what we did,” says Sam Primerano, EMS Fleet Operations Team Lead. “We had a great team and everyone worked together and we were able to get that up in two and a half days which is, I think, unprecedented for something that large.”
Additional supports such as addiction and mental health, physical and occupational therapy and public health services were also available through temporary trailers at the Syncrude Sports and Wellness Centre at Keyano College.
With the UCC open and able to provide care, work to reopen the NLRHC began on Sunday, May 21st, with more than 500 vendors and AHS staff working around the clock.
Gordon Dancey, with AHS Facility Maintenance and Engineering (FME), was among them, despite losing his home to the wildfire.
“I didn’t hesitate, I wanted to help out any way I could,” says Dancey. “It was important for me to lend a hand, but it was also a sort of therapy to help keep me busy, give me purpose and come to terms with everything I lost.”
The NLRHC was reopened in phases, starting on June 1st with the emergency department, lab and diagnostic imaging (things such as x-rays and CT scans).
“The biggest issue was the smoke caused by the fire and it was obvious when you walked into the hospital,” says David Ponich, AHS North Zone Director, Facility Maintenance and Engineering. “Smoke made its way into the building leaving behind a strong smell and some residue, which compromised some of the hospital infrastructure and equipment.”
Every ceiling tile in the facility (nearly 8,200 of them) had to be removed and replaced because of the smoke and residue.
Special measures were taken to clean the ventilation system, including the installation of a temporary charcoal filter. The water systems were continuously flushed and both air and water quality tested regularly to ensure they met AHS’ high health and safety standards.
Carpets, linens, curtains and towels were cleaned or replaced. Several walls were re-painted. Hundreds of pieces of medical and lab equipment were cleaned, tested, and verified to ensure they weren’t compromised.
A team of electricians and plumbers went through each room to ensure plumbing and electrical systems were functioning properly.
“The safety and health of our staff and patients was our primary concern for all our cleanup work,” says Ponich. “We only opened a unit or department after it had been extensively inspected and approved by Infection Prevention and Control in addition to Workplace Health and Safety.”
When looking back on the entire experience, David Matear says he feels pride more than anything else.
“It’s hard to mention just one area,” he explains. “The physicians and staff at the hospital, AHS leadership at all levels, staff from elsewhere in the province who came to our aid and helped with the recovery effort – they all pulled together to do what was required, then eagerly asked what else they could do. I can’t say enough about our community and Albertans as a whole. The amount of kindness we’ve been shown has been unbelievable.”
Support health care close to home
With your support, the Northern Lights Health Foundation transforms local health care through funding vital medical equipment, programs and services. Your generous gift resonates through health care facilities in Wood Buffalo and is crucial to ensuring we have the best possible care close to home.
Thanks to our community, the Health Foundation granted over $4.2 million in 2015 to fund a wide variety of local health care needs, including:
- Equipment for a new spinal surgery program
- An expansion to the Maternal Child Unit
- An expansion to acute care services
- A new telehealth program through a partnership with the Stollery Children’s Hospital
There are many ways to support health care in your community, including:
- One-time gifts
- Monthly gifts
- Planned gifts
- Gifts in kind, including goods and services
- Hosting your own fundraising event
For more information and to donate, visit northernlightshealthfoundation.ca