A territorial nursing shortage is causing serious stress among Whitehorse General Hospital staffers.
“I just think that people need to know, right from the frontlines, what’s going on,” said a local nurse who asked to remain anonymous because she feared for her job.
“If it wasn’t for nurses working overtime shifts and extra shifts, the place wouldn’t be staffed at all.”
Due to the nurse shortage, many hospital wards are dangerously understaffed.
And one quarter of Yukon nurses are working as casuals, not fulltime.
“We’ve got people who have been up here for two years and they don’t have a permanent position,” said the nurse.
“They can’t even get a mortgage, half of them, because they can’t go to the bank and say that they have a full time job.”
Recently, there was only one maternity nurse on shift when two women went into labour, said the nurse.
One nurse cannot cover two women in labour, plus all the post-partum patients in the ward, but no additional nurses were available.
That night, a doctor from the emergency ward was able to come help out.
It’s just going to be a matter of time before something happens, said the nurse.
Intensive care unit beds have been closed because of a lack of staff.
When these beds are closed, patients who are supposed to be admitted become backed up into the emergency ward.
However, that ward is low on staff as well and has trouble covering the extra patients.
“We do have some actual vacancies, there’s no question about that,” said Whitehorse General Hospital board chair Craig Tuton.
“They’re in our specialty areas, the areas that are very difficult to recruit, like the operating room, the emergency room, the intensive care unit and even in maternity.
“But we recognized that some time ago,” said Tuton.
Last fall the hospital sent three of its staff nurses south for operating-room training.
That training is expected to be finished sometime this year.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the nurses and all the employees we have at the hospital because they work hard,” said Tuton.
“But we also have to make sure that from time to time we give them some time in holidays.”
On a short-term basis, the hospital is planning to recruit nurses from nursing agencies to ensure that staff has time off over the summer.
The hospital is working with the Yukon government to find a more long-term solution to the nursing shortage, said Tuton, citing a recruitment DVD, which will pitch the attractions of the North.
And the hospital plans to send more staff away for training in the future, he said.
“The one thing we want to do for anybody that wants to stay in the Yukon, if they’re qualified in any position in the hospital, is keep them.”
NDP MLA John Edzerza’s daughter, who is a registered nurse, was turned away when she tried to get a job at the hospital.
“She wanted to come back home and work in the place where she was born and raised,” he said.
“And they couldn’t give her a job. They only offered her a casual position.”
Edzerza’s daughter had already given up a fulltime position in Grand Prairie, Alberta where she went to school.
Edzerza’s daughter now works fulltime in a hospital in Dawson Creek and has been promoted to working in the emergency room.
“And she’s a First Nations person too — how many First Nations nurses do you have here?” said Edzera.
“It’s a motivator for our people to see First Nations nurses and it would be nice to even have doctors.”
Many nurses in the territory are working casual positions.
In Canada, 10.8 per cent of nursing staff work casual positions.
In the Yukon, that number is 25.9 per cent.
Other provinces are offering nursing grads fulltime work fresh out of school.
Students graduating from universities in Saskatchewan are guaranteed permanent positions in the province.
This makes it difficult for the Yukon to compete with other provinces that are also strapped for nurses.
The Canadian Nurses Association predicts that Canada will be short 78,000 nurses by 2011.
By 2016 they expect that number to increase to 113,000.
More than half of the Yukon’s 293 working nurses are over the age of 45, which means that in 10 years, when these nurses retire, the territory will lose half of its staff.
It may be difficult to fill those positions.
When it comes to working conditions, “the hospital has a horrible, horrible reputation,” said the nurse.
When nurses hear about the conditions at the hospital and the comparatively few benefits offered, most change their minds about coming to Whitehorse.
“The reason that I’m calling isn’t just for personal strife against the hospital,” said the nurse.
“It’s just to let people know that when they come in there, they’re dealing with nurses who are working six 12-hour shifts a week.
“It’s getting worse and worse everyday.”