With a shortage of doctors causing emergency rooms to close across the country, a northern Ontario hospital is struggling to avoid the same fate.
Traveling doctors needed by Notre-Dame Hospital in Hearst to keep its emergency room open in the face of chronic flight cancellations out of Toronto’s Pearson Airport, according to recruiting coordinator Melanie Goulet.
“We’re already having a hard time finding doctors who work in our little community, and flight cancellations make it all complicated,” Goulet said.
He had to ask another traveling doctor to work an extra 24 hours over the recent long weekend, when his replacement’s flight was canceled on the day of his departure.
“There were about five hospitals over the past weekend that had to close their emergency room, and we were almost one of them, too,” Goulet said.
“I can’t even imagine the day we’ll have to do that.”
Dr. Vivian Ma was supposed to fly from Montreal to Timmins on June 30 and drive three hours north to fill a vacant spot in the Hearst hospital emergency room.
He said that after his first flight arrived in Toronto, Air Canada notified him that a connecting flight was canceled and would be rescheduled for July 2, the day after his shift began.
Ma said it’s a frustrating situation that has been going on for weeks.
“For the past two months, every single one of my flights arriving here has been delayed, all three times I have come here in June, and all my flights have been cancelled,” Ma said.
She said the only options are to book a flight with Porter, drive more than nine hours to Hearst, or wait for the flight booked with Air Canada.
Ma said Porter’s same-day flight to Timmins was booked during this latest mishap, so he bought a ticket for the next day.
“I promised to provide services, and not being able to come here and do the work I promised, knowing that emergency patients are not going to be treated here, affects me in that sense,” he said.
“I just want to be able to come here and do my duties.”
Staff shortage at Toronto airport
Timmins’ Victor M. Power Airport management said the cancellations and delays have affected hundreds of passengers flying to and from the city.
Problems at Pearson International Airport due to staffing shortages and construction delays are causing Air Canada flights north to be cancelled.
Timmins Airport Manager Dave Dayment said the airline is cutting flights in hopes of offering stability.
“We’ve been cut back to two flights a day and yet the last five days, the evening flight that leaves at 6 o’clock has been canceled the last five days,” Dayment said.
Monday’s flight board showed that one outbound flight had already been cancelled.
“The next three days, they’re scheduled to be on time, but we won’t know until the day of.”
Dayment said the level of coordination required to land planes at an airport and take off is such that any lack of efficiency or staffing can delay schedules or cancel flights.
Timmins airport is limiting delays at its end, he said.
With Pearson struggling to manage the hundreds of flights coming in, flight disruptions are inevitable.
He suggested passengers frequently check the status of their flight and turn on text alerts to receive notifications about delays or cancellations quickly.
For Ma, there is little assurance that his next flight to northern Ontario will operate as scheduled, and he is trying to make contingency plans.
“I am preemptively purchasing a second ticket on the same day, in case Air Canada cancels my flight,” he said.
Goulet added that other doctors he has spoken with are making similar plans, buying several plane tickets with different airlines to ensure they get to the hospital.
“That’s all at your own additional cost,” he said.
‘It could mean I can’t come here anymore’
“There is so much planning that I can do and come so often that it is not always feasible to have five plans,” Ma said.
“However, if things fail on my next trip here, then it might mean I can’t come here anymore.”
That is the worst fear for both Ma and Goulet, especially since summer is one of the worst seasons for doctor shortages.
Goulet said Notre-Dame Hospital is looking for a long-term solution.
“We’re even thinking of reaching out to local people in our community who have planes, to see if they can take their own personal plane to go get a doctor,” he said.
“The hospital is even considering paying Ornge Air Ambulance to fly doctors into town,” Goulet said.
The hospital intends to contact government officials and Air Canada to try to find a solution.
CTV contacted Transport Canada for comment, which said it is working with federal agencies to address travel disruptions affecting the entire country.
“While progress has been made, some challenges remain, particularly for travelers facing flight cancellations and issues with baggage services,” Transport Canada Senior Communications Advisor Sau Sau Liu said in an email.
“Work continues with airline industry partners to further reduce delays in the air travel system and Transport Canada will continue to update Canadians on progress.”
As for a small northern town that needs doctors to get to its hospital on time to provide care to the community, Goulet said Hearst can’t handle this situation much longer.
“We need to have a doctor in our emergency room.”