Health department leaves Yukon man broken hearted

After suffering a heart attack, Spencer Elofson says he was abandoned by the Yukon medical system. His tale involves broken promises, broken fuel…

After suffering a heart attack, Spencer Elofson says he was abandoned by the Yukon medical system.

His tale involves broken promises, broken fuel pumps, long-distance calls, unsympathetic pharmacists, expensive hotels and cab rides and more physical activity than a recent heart attack victim should be engaging in.

And it all started 12 days ago.

That’s when the 56-year-old Yukoner was admitted to Whitehorse General Hospital and diagnosed with a heart attack.

Two days later, he was medevaced to Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital for treatment.

There, doctors inserted a mini-spring into Elofson’s heart to keep his valves open.

On Valentine’s Day, Alberta medical authorities told Yukon Health officials to collect Elofson.

The only problem was, nobody ever did.

That’s when the heart attack victim’s problems really started.

“The last thing I remember before getting in the ambulance at the Whitehorse General Hospital (on February 11) was them saying, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Elofson, when you’re ready to come home, just get them to call us and we’ll come get you,’” he said.

“They told me they were coming to get me, and they didn’t. They just said, ‘Screw you buddy, you got your treatment.’

“The second the medevac flight’s wheels left the ground at the airport here, I was on my own. I was in a strange city and I didn’t know who to call.”

On Friday morning, roughly 24 hours after Edmonton doctors first called Whitehorse to get him, Elofson learned the medevac flight was not coming.

Edmonton officials wanted his bed for a new patient. And Elofson had no idea how to get home.

Edmonton officials called three times on Thursday, he said.

“They called again on Friday and found out that until they had someone to send down, they weren’t coming down to get me; that’s not what I was told when I left.”

So Elofson shuffled to the nursing station and called Air North.

The airline said there was a flight, so the hospital agreed to discharge him.

He gathered his things — including a day’s worth of heart medicine and meds for diabetes, which he also suffers from — and took a $50 cab ride to Edmonton’s airport to a buy a ticket home.

But there was no ticket available. Air North’s desk was empty and another airline’s ticket agent said the next Air North flight wasn’t for a few days.

So he went to Shoppers Drug Mart, his pharmacy of choice, for a refill on his meds.

After hearing his tale, the pharmacist said they couldn’t help and turned him away.

Distraught, disoriented and anxious, he booked a hotel room near the airport, called his partner and assessed his options.

“I got in there and they said, ‘Yeah, I got a room, but the only one I got available is an executive suite. It’s $189 a night and you can’t have it until 3 p.m.”

He took the room.

“I made some calls around 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon. I called Yukon Health and they said they’d set everything up.

“They said there’s no flight out tonight, but we can get you out first thing (Saturday) morning.

“They said, just show up in the morning — you have to be there at 7 a.m. because the flight was at 8:15 a.m.”

He arrived at the airport at 6:45 a.m.

There was no ticket for him.

“They said there was nothing booked for me,” said Elofson.

“The ticket agent checked five flights and said, ‘You’re not booked anywhere.’

“They had no room on any of those flights and told me the best they could probably do was Monday night because it was a long weekend in Alberta.”

So, he checked back into the hotel and got back on the phone.

He discovered the Yukon’s medical travel officer doesn’t work weekends.

So he called Whitehorse General Hospital.

“They said they didn’t know what to do and that they would call me back.

“I was starting to panic a bit, a heart attack isn’t exactly like having the flu.”

Hospital officials later told him they’d bought an Air Canada Jazz flight on the hospital’s credit card, he said.

He got on the flight Saturday night.

The plane had mechanical problems.

“I got on the airplane, it taxied out to the runway and then they told us that the plane’s fuel pump went.”

After an hour delay, the plane flew to Vancouver.

But it couldn’t make it to Whitehorse.

In Vancouver, the Whitehorse leg was cancelled.

Air Canada Jazz put Elofson up in a hotel.

The problem with the plane was due to a “fuel pressure light in the cockpit,” said airline spokesperson Debra Williams.

So Elofson walked through the airport in a heavy coat carrying luggage — something he wasn’t supposed to do — the airline bused passengers to a nearby hotel and told them to call customer service reps at midnight, said Elofson.

“I was told when I got to the hotel I had to call (a number) and if enough people called, it might force people up the line to put an extra airplane.

“They weren’t sure when we were going to get home.”

Finally, he finagled a morning flight.

He requested a 5:30 a.m. wakeup call from the front desk and went to bed.

“I hadn’t had four consecutive hours of sleep from the time I got sick — I was (expletive) worn out.”

With no clock in his room and no watch, it was only on the cab ride to the airport that he realized his wake-up call had come two-and-a-half hours early, he said.

So, after a four-hour wait for his plane, then another two-hour delay, he was off to Whitehorse.

He’s seen his family doctor and awaits an update on his health.

He feels the whole debacle could have been avoided if Yukon medical staff had been upfront about how he would be getting home, he said.

There should be better communication and a contact person available on weekends, said Elofson.

His partner, Anna Buxton, a former nurse, shares his views.

She’s not happy her partner, who had a spring in one heart valve and 70-per-cent blockage in another, was made to fend for himself, said Buxton.

“The issue for me is, if you can’t do it or don’t know the answer … don’t tell half-truths, don’t try to guess that maybe you can get an airplane and say you can,” she said.

“It would have been far easier the whole way along if the people at Yukon Health had said, ‘You know, it may be difficult for us to do it; you might have to plan to stay until Monday.’

“We would have been willing to set up and pay for our own flight and be reimbursed.

“It’s an issue of responsibility. An issue of: ‘I’ve sent you out and I’m going to make sure you get back.’”

The Health and Social Services department has a process to ensure all medevaced Yukoners get home, said department spokeswoman Pat Living.

The Yukon medical travel officer makes all the arrangements.

For patients under medical supervision, that means a medevac flight home, said Living.

For patients discharged from hospital who are healthy enough to travel home alone, that means a commercial airline ticket.

“If you’re healthy then we’re not going to send a $20,000 airplane to get you back.”

The medical travel office is open Monday to Friday, so any arrangements for patients discharged after hours or on weekends or holidays would be made beforehand, said Living.

“All of the hospitals that we direct patients to are aware of how the system works,” she said.

“We do have a process in place.”

She’s not sure if patients are provided with a form detailing how the system works, she added.

The receiving hospital is sent an information package detailing how patients should be sent home.

The Health department doesn’t always book flights, said Whitehorse General Hospital spokesperson Val Pike.

The hospital has its own system and has booked fights for several patients, including Elofson, who have been medevaced out and are released from hospital at a time when the Health department isn’t open, said Pike.

“We have a process in place for that,” she said.

“We bill the Health and Social Services department (for those flights).”

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