HALIFAX – The water is undrinkable due to pipes fouled by Legionnaire’s disease, floods routinely disrupt surgeries and send nurses scrambling to save medical equipment, bedbugs are rampant in some units and rodents have been known to roam the wards.
The problems at the Victoria General hospital site — Atlantic Canada’s largest cancer treatment facility and a major health-care provider in the region — have become a cruel joke for staff and patients, who have endured all of that plus overheating, mould and airborne debris that contaminates sterilized devices.
“It’s like working in a Third World country,” said nurse Trish MacDonald.
“You have some of your most immuno-compromised patients there. If that was an apartment building, it would have been shut down and condemned by the Department of Health, so why in the world do we have a building that has Legionella?”
After years of debate and planning, she is hoping the decrepit state of the hospital might finally be addressed when the provincial government receives an initial plan in the coming days on the fate of the Victoria General site.
Health Minister Leo Glavine has promised to lay out a road map on plans to replace the hospital, which most recently suffered a series of leaks that cancelled dozens of surgeries, closed units and caused chaos for patients and physicians.
The heating system at the Victoria General was shut down last week after a leak prompted workers to turn it off for repairs. They relied on forced air heating in the hallways to heat patients’ rooms, creating what one nurse described as a “sweatbox.”
That followed a burst pipe last September that caused flooding on three floors of the adjoining Centennial Building, displacing patients from some units where water levels reached as high as 75 centimetres.
It was the last straw for one cancer surgeon who had to cancel two operations because of the floodwaters. One patient who had undergone three months of chemo was due to have the right side of his liver removed, while the other was due to have both a kidney and liver tumour taken out.
One had travelled five hours to get to the hospital only to find the surgery was indefinitely put off, Dr. Geoff Porter wrote in an appeal for action published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
“A solution to the Victoria General problem is needed. Period. Now. Not further study or conceptual plans, no more round-table discussions with ‘involved stakeholders,'” Porter wrote.
Glavine acknowledged that the flood caused his government to expedite plans for a replacement and relocation of medical services now done at the Centennial and Victoria General buildings. He said a hospital in Dartmouth and an addition to the Infirmary site will take on some of those patients.
“There’s no question, the flood was a watershed moment,” Glavine said in an interview.
“We can no longer wait. There is a very high degree of urgency with the accumulated problems and deficiencies in those buildings.”
The opposition has accused the provincial Liberal government of failing to act when it comes to replacing the buildings, though a succession of administrations has done little to address problems that date back to the 1980s when Legionella was first detected in the water.
More than 30 years later, a 2013 Accreditation Report highlighted the floods and unusable tap water, stating bluntly that “the situation at the Victoria General site has created significant risk for the safe delivery of patient care.”
Everton McLean, spokesman with the Nova Scotia Health Authority which oversees the hospital, says they know the site needs to be shut down but must also determine how to manage patients during the decommissioning.
For nurses like MacDonald, the closure can’t come soon enough. She says the conditions have only worsened since she started working there 28 years ago, leaving staff frustrated and embarrassed.
The 48-year-old has even come up with a speech she delivers to vacationing Americans passing through her ward at the newer Infirmary and onto the VG hospital, which was built in 1947.
“Can you imagine what they are thinking?” she says with a laugh. “I prepare them. I say, ‘We’re sending you to another site. I need you to prepare before you go. You cannot drink the water. There is no air conditioning.’ And they’re looking at you like you’re insane!”
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