‘Happy to be here’: N.L. health-care workers help expand Fort McMurray’s ICU

Jennifer Richard didn’t hesitate when the Alberta government issued a call for help. The critical care nurse practitioner from St. John’s, N.L., is one of a seven-person team assisting with COVID-19 patients at Fort McMurray’s Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

“It’s no secret that Fort McMurray and Newfoundland and Labrador have very close ties. I have friends that are here in the area,” Richard said.

“I know some of the team members also have family here so there are certainly close connections which makes it feel so much more like home.”

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Richard said the rest of the team is comprised of three registered nurses, an anesthesiologist and a family medicine physician. The nurses, she said, will be in Fort McMurray for at least three weeks.

“We of course have to keep in touch with our own province and continue to reassess their needs in the ICU to ensure that we aren’t needed back home but we have committed to three weeks.”

The northern Alberta hospital has been hit hard during the fourth wave. ICU capacity has been expanded across the zone’s two major hospitals, in Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie, to 15 from six beds. As of Tuesday, both intensive care units were operating at 100 per cent capacity.

“We continue to see many patients require a higher level of care from our regional communities where immunization rates are lower,” said Dr. Verna Yiu, Alberta Health Services president and CEO, during a COVID-19 update Tuesday.

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“Since Sept. 1, about 290 Albertans have been transferred between zones due to the high number of patients needing care. … We are typically transferring patients from the north, south and central zone to Edmonton and Calgary.”

Yiu says having the team from Newfoundland and Labrador in Fort McMurray has allowed for two additional ICU beds at Northern Lights Regional health centre.

“All of the patients that are admitted in the ICU (in Fort McMurray) are unvaccinated and they’re very sick,” Richard said. “The age demographic is very young — I would say mainly 40s and 50s.”

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This is not Richard’s first trip out of province to help with the COVID-19 health care response.  She was also part of a team of health care workers deployed to Ontario last spring. The difference this time, she said, is the vaccine is now widely available.

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some of the nurses and they’re exhausted,” she said.

“They’re feeling the strain and they’re feeling the pressure now and they’re very open about how fatigued they are. So we’re happy to be here to hopefully inject some new enthusiasm and energy and morale into the unit while we’re here.”

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