Frustrated Whitbourne residents are protesting the ongoing ER closure – and promising more rallies are to come

Around 200 protesters gathered in Whitbourne on Sunday.  Their demand is an immediate restoration of emergency services at the city's hospital.  (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - photo credit)

Around 200 protesters gathered in Whitbourne on Sunday. Their demand is an immediate restoration of emergency services at the city’s hospital. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC – photo credit)

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Loud chants erupted in Whitbourne on Sunday as about 200 protesters gathered outside the town’s health center to express their frustration at the continued closure of the emergency room.

The protest was organized by Elaine Thorne, Gail Piercey and Joan Reid, who want the reinstatement of 24-hour emergency service at the William H. Newhook Health Center.

“People have lost their lives because they have to travel so far to get the care they need,” said Thorne, a resident of neighboring Markland.

“This rally is just the beginning. The government needs to know that we are here and we will fight. We will not settle for anything other than what we had before COVID.”

Due to staffing shortages related to COVID-19, the emergency room was initially closed on January 7, 2022. It reopened about a month later on February 4, but emergency services were suspended again on June 27 due to staffing issues.

What was intended to be a temporary closure has since been extended week by week by Eastern Health. The latest extension, announced on Friday, is in effect until March 6 at 8am. At that point, the city’s emergency room will be closed continuously for 36 weeks — or just over eight months.

That means the approximately 20,000 area residents who the Newhook Health Center normally serves have no choice but to travel approximately 50 kilometers to Placentia, 60 kilometers to Carbonear or 90 kilometers to St. John’s.

That’s too far, said Thorne, who has a young daughter.

“Just knowing that if anything happens to her I’d have to travel that far breaks my heart to know that the care that was here isn’t here now,” she said.

Protest co-organiser Joan Reid of Dildo agrees. Many people in her community, she said, also rely on the emergency room in nearby Whitbourne, like their aging parents and other seniors.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

“I have a home care agency where my seniors get very stressed knowing they can’t come here in an emergency,” Reid said.

But Whitbourne’s emergency department not only serves the area’s residents, it also takes care of those injured in motorway accidents.

Wade Smith, owner of Smith’s Ambulance Services in Whitbourne, knows first-hand how important the city’s emergency department is as a triage and treatment site.

“It’s like any emergency: you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to be prepared when it happens so you can respond,” Smith said. “Right now we have a weak link in that answer.”

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Since the emergency room closed in June, Smith’s crews have had to travel farther to get patients to hospitals and have been away longer as a result.

The result, Smith said, is “red alert” in most cases — if an ambulance isn’t available. In addition, there are delays due to wintry road conditions, delays in unloading and a larger operational area for his crews due to a nationwide shortage of personnel. But, Smith said, his request for additional staff was denied.

“This past weekend alone we had to take our staff off due to fatigue and left the red alert,” Smith said. “It’s worrying because these are young people who are just getting into the industry.”

The general feeling at Whitbourne, he said, was “just pure frustration”.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

For protester Patti Kennedy, the closures in her community — and other rural areas of the province, including Bonavista and Bell Island — stem from overarching health-care system issues, such as employing traveling nurses, exam fees for registered nurses and the MCP billing system that nurses use excludes.

“We have a state-of-the-art facility here that was built after Cottage Hospital closed,” Kennedy said. “This has nothing to do with government cutbacks or doctors, it has to do with the government making good use of and using our medical professionals here in our province.”

As a lifelong resident of Whitbourne, Kennedy knows the value the emergency room has had for residents over the years — and examples of why it’s still needed today can be found throughout the community, she said. With Whitbourne’s emergency room closed, she said her own mayor, Hilda Whelan, had to go to Carbonear for cancer follow-up.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Kennedy said the people of Whitbourne are ready to fight to save their emergency room – just as they fought to save their elementary school seven years ago.

“This is on such a large scale because you can have a school, you can have a police station, you can have a shop,” she said.

“If you don’t have healthy, healthy people and people like fire and rescue and our paramedics and our ambulance drivers, you have nothing because there’s not going to be anyone here to take advantage of all the good.”

Protest organizer Reid agrees. If nothing changes, she said, they will take their protest to the nearest St. John’s.

“We won’t stop until the government has gotten its head where it takes to reopen this place,” she said.

“It can’t stay closed. There are just too many lives that depend on this place.”

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