Staff Shortages Cause Concern

Trent Ernst, Editor

Tumbler Ridge has never had deep reserves in health services. With two physicians and two emergency room nurses currently working at the clinic, the loss of even one could send the entire clinic into a tailspin.

That day is approaching sooner than you might think.

In fact, that day is April 15. That’s when local nurse Karen Strang retires.

Strang has been a fixture at the Tumbler Ridge clinic since 2001, but will work her last day on April 15. Currently, Strang works from 10:30 in the morning to 8:30 at night in the Clinic’s Emergency room. Over a two week period, she will work Monday and Tuesday one week and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the next. And when she is done work at 8:30, she is not done, but remains on-call overnight. She is also on-call one weekend out of two.

In addition to the two emergency room nurses, there are two other nurses working at the clinic: Barb Schuerkamp, who is the administrator, and Karen Morash, who is only working on a casual basis. A new home care nurse recently started in Tumbler Ridge and has expressed interest in taking on some shifts, but that’s certainly not a done deal.

Northern Health is actively trying to replace Strang, but Tumbler Ridge can be a difficult town to relocate to. “It’s hard to find a place to stay that’s affordable.”

While the worry historically has been that Tumbler Ridge is short on doctors, Helm says that, right now, that’s the most stable. “There is a physician working in Dawson Creek who may potentially be able to do two and a half days here, starting in the summer,” says Helm. “That would bring us to two and a half physicians. We’re getting by. At the moment, this is the least of our concerns.”

And, with the government recently announcing a $100,000 incentive (in addition to the $35,000 in incentives already on the table) to attract a new GP to Tumbler Ridge, things are looking good for doctors in Tumbler.

He’s far more worried about the ambulance service, which is down to three paramedics, and nursing, with the departure of Strang.

“It’s like a chain,” says Helm. “And if you remove one of the links, the whole thing falls apart. If we had a much bigger facility, we could cope with people leaving more easily.”

And to a large extent, the emergency department is the catch-all for medical issues in town. Is there an accident? Head for the Emergency room. Does your daughter have a fever and the clinic is closed? Guess where you’re heading. Counseling clinic closed? Maybe they can help over in emerg.

“That’s the problem with a small community,” says Jaret Clay. “One person leaves and you lose, well, it’s not really half the staff, but it’s a big chunk.”

Clay is the Health Services Administrator for the South Peace for Northern Health. He says that things are not as dire as they might seem at first glance. “We do have people interested in the role. We’re being flexible in how we’re looking at that position. We may have to do more to accommodate people some time. That being said, there is interest in the shifts that are available. We are always concerned when there aren’t people in the role, and will do what we can to fill those shifts.”

Clay says that he can’t speak to any specifics yet, but Northern Health is doing what it can “so that Tumbler Ridge is taken care of.”

He says that Tumbler Ridge is a unique community, even in the North. “What Tumbler Ridge has going on is not typical,” he says.

In addition to Strang leaving, Tumbler Ridge’s other Emergency Room nurse, Natasha Burns will be on maternity leave starting later this year. Clay says that they’re working on dealing with that, too. “The solutions are as individual as each position,” says Clay. “We have plans in place to address the ongoing human resources issues that we have there. We have a good plan in place that we’re working with, and again, we have people that have expressed interest. We need to find out the resources that we have available.”