Milt Williams was facing a painful years-long wait for knee replacement surgery at the Red Deer Regional Hospital. He’d recently lost his wife and son, and had been diagnosed with cancer himself. His mental health was deteriorating along with his physical condition.
Then the other knee gave out. “I struggled around with a lot of pain,” says Williams. “My right knee hurt for sure … but the left knee was just agonizing, just pain all the time.”
The pain was so debilitating that Williams made the difficult decision to spend a considerable portion of his retirement savings on knee surgery in a private clinic in Montreal.
“I thought about the people who can’t afford that,” he says.
“My heart goes out to them because when you’re in pain and you can’t move, you’re not mobile, there’s not much you can do in life, really.”
Williams is still on the waiting list for the other knee, which could end up being a four-year wait in total.
His experience is indicative of the state of health care in Red Deer, and the province generally: a shortage of resources, beds and staff result in lengthy wait times for not only so-called “elective” procedures like knee replacements, but also emergency room visits.
WATCH | Red Deer’s health-care problems:
In January 2022, as estimated emergency department wait times at the Red Deer hospital soared to 14 hours, a patient died awaiting care after being triaged and told to wait.
Citing personal privacy, AHS did not release any information about the person, including the cause of death or why they had come to the ER.
More people, same resources
While health-care concerns in Red Deer include access to family doctors and walk-in clinics, a key piece of the problem is the hospital.
“We’re probably somewhere between 150 to 200 beds short in our hospital right now,” says Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, an orthopedic surgeon and founding member of the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta.
The advocacy group was created by local doctors after the provincial government, then led by the NDP, took the long-needed hospital expansion off the provincial infrastructure priority list in 2016.
The hospital serves not only the city of Red Deer’s 100,000 people, but nearly half a million central Albertans.
“What we had 20 years ago was probably fine to serve our needs,” says Wolstenholme.
But as the population of the region has grown — and grown older — local health-care resources have not kept pace.
“If there’s no beds [available], that means we can’t send the patients from emergency upstairs,” Wolstenholme says. “Well, if the emergency department is full of patients awaiting admission, awaiting a bed upstairs, there’s no room to see patients coming in.”
This, he says, creates lengthy wait times in the emergency department.
That was Diane Adkins’s experience. She went to a Red Deer walk-in clinic last December with abdominal discomfort. After a three-hour wait to be examined, she was sent to the hospital emergency department with a suspected burst appendix.
Adkins waited another five hours as her symptoms became more severe — she describes the pain as “extreme.” She was eventually admitted, and after a 10-day hospital stay she was sent home to wait for a surgery.
Months later, she’s still waiting.
“I’m carrying on, but … the fun fact is, it can rupture again,” she says. “That’s why they say it’s imperative to go in and take it out. So it’s always kind of there, it’s in the back of your mind.”
Alberta’s health-care system has long been a point of contention. Already under strain, from long wait times to shortages of family doctors, the pandemic pushed resources and staff to the breaking point.
Now, in the midst of a heated election campaign centred on the two parties that most recently formed government, health care is a top issue for voters.
The politicians have been making their pitches.
The New Democratic Party has promised to create 40 new family health clinics, hire 4,000 allied health professionals — a category that includes medical technologists and midwives — and increase funding for emergency medical services.
The United Conservative Party, seeking to address concern about its leader’s past views on out-of-pocket health care, has put forward a “public health-care guarantee.” Other promises include increasing educational spaces for health-care training, $10 million for new obstetricians and a provincial midwives strategy.
Both parties have pledged to prioritize and build the Red Deer hospital expansion.
The deficiencies in Alberta’s health-care system, however, are long-standing and deeply rooted. Responsibility for the current shortages, overcrowding and long waits is shared across decades of governments, including the NDP, UCP and defunct Progressive Conservative party.
“The blame for this extends across both current parties and the pre-existing party and Alberta Health Services and everybody who’s had a stake up to this point, I think has blame to share for this,” says Wolstenholme.
Adkins and Williams agree. They can’t help but think about health care as they each cast a vote while enduring long waits for much-needed surgeries.
“I do think it’s the No. 1 issue for me, at this point,” Adkins says. “We’re trying to gather as much information from the candidates as we can before the voting day.”
Williams has a different take: If the blame for the status quo is shared, the responsibility for fixing it ought to be as well.
“Both parties, the NDP and the UCP, should get together and work together,” he says.
“It shouldn’t be a political issue for political gain. This is about people’s lives.”