There is simply no way that the political or managerial leaders of Alberta’s health care system did not know that a major crisis was brewing in the province’s hospital Emergency Departments as early as the spring of 2008.

And there is likely no way that most Albertans who do not have an Emergency Room view of the details of this ongoing crisis can begin to imagine just how badly things have gone awry in our province’s Emergency Wards.

In a series of meticulously detailed emails to top medical and political leaders including former health ministers Dave Hancock and Ron Liepert as well as Premier Ed Stelmach, the head of the Alberta Medical Association‘s emergency medicine section catalogued the shocking state of Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital Emergency Ward through 2008 and 2009.

The emails from Dr. Paul Parks, which have been obtained by a number of journalists and bloggers in Alberta, chronicle a shocking and tragic story of desperately sick Albertans trapped in a system incapable of even assessing how ill they are, let alone helping them for hours or days.

The cumulative effect of reading these emails is distressing to say the least, genuinely frightening when we think that any one of us could find ourselves in a dysfunctional emergency department like this or many others in Alberta through happenstance or ill health.

Perhaps that is why the mainstream media chose to write well-crafted news stories, which nicely summarized the contents of the emails, but which failed completely to capture their frightening intensity.

Indeed, these emails paint a picture of a Third World medical system, or something that we would expect to read about in post-Soviet Russia, not in Canada’s richest province.

Sometimes the impact of small details is overwhelming. Consider just these three incidents, catalogued in one letter, one after the other:

–    “Fractured hip, severe pain, nowhere to offload patient.

–    “Moaning in pain, on EMS stretcher, nowhere to offload patient.

–    “Triage category 2, end state CA, syncopal, nowhere to offload patient…”

That should be the motto of the Alberta health care system under Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives: “Nowhere to Offload Patients.”

OK. I’m not a doctor. I’m only guessing that CA is cancer. Syncopal means fainting. But, moving on through the emails, I do know that a CVA is a Cerebral Vascular Accident — in other words, a stroke — and you really don’t want to have a stroke in an Alberta where the health care system is run by the Conservative government.

A five and a half hour wait for a possible stroke victim to get a bed! Another one with stroke symptoms leaves after five hours without seeing a physician. The ugly fact is, thanks to the mismanagement of our health care system, stroke victims are at extremely high risk in our hospitals.

But what about…? A nine hour wait for a patient experiencing seizures! A patient admitted to the emergency department for an entire week! Acute appendicitis diagnosed with no bed for treatment! Patients in the waiting room threatening triage nurses – “screaming that we are letting people die.”

A 45-year-old man requiring emergency brain surgery who can’t have it because of “overwhelming systemic overcrowding” … he later dies. A woman contemplating suicide who gives up and leaves without seeing a doctor … and returns by ambulance suffering from a life-threatening prescription drug overdose.

A 10-hour wait for a 91-year-old. … A 91-year-old, for crying out loud! A riot at the Edmonton Max — “absolutely no reserve in the ED and we were receiving a number of unknown injuries from the riot, requested to activate the disaster plan and (the) executive on call refused…”

“Department is completely non-functional and dangerous…”

Yet Ron Liepert couldn’t even be bothered to respond to the people telling him this stuff!

The deeply worried ER physicians represented by Parks say they heard nothing from Liepert at all. Indeed, this entire government had very little time for them — until, that is, a letter detailing their pleas for action was leaked to the media on Oct. 22, 2010!

I spoke to Parks about this, by the way, and he confirmed to me that the emails I’d obtained were among the ones he sent. Ironically, he said, while the solution to the ER crisis will take some time, it not all that complicated to implement.

What we need is more long-term care beds, he explained, so that patients admitted to emergency aren’t kept there for days blocking other patients who need acute care beds, which in turn are full of the chronically ill who have nowhere to go. Yet the Stelmach government is closing long-term care facilities as part of its relentless drive to privatize the delivery of seniors’ care in Alberta.

“We don’t need more emergency departments. We don’t need more hospitals. We just need to get our emergency departments back,” Parks said, noting that long-term care beds cost a few hundreds of dollars a day to operate, while acute care beds can cost thousands.

Really, Liepert should have given Parks a call, if only for some help with his arithmetic!

Look, people, sometimes a well-crafted news story just can’t do the job. Citizens of Alberta really need to read these shocking documents for themselves. And there’s really nothing more that I can say than, please click on the link below, and hold onto your hats!

[Click here to read emails from Dr. Paul Parks to various health officials cataloguing the crisis in our Emergency Rooms.]

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...