Residents of remote northern B.C. town sometimes wait days for medical evacuations

For residents of some remote B.C. communities, waiting for transport to medical care is often worse than a heart attack or spinal injury. 

That was the case for Shiela Davidson, a Dease Lake resident who was forced to watch her father suffer the effects of a heart attack while waiting for a medevac plane, helicopter or ambulance to take him to Vancouver. 

“I thought I was going to lose my father,” Davidson said. “To hear him sitting in an emergency bed in the clinic, screaming in pain, saying he didn’t want to do this anymore.

“It’s very hard for a family member to watch that.”

Davidson’s father waited two days after his first heart attack before he was driven to Prince George and flown to Vancouver for treatment. After his second heart attack, he waited about 36 hours before he was flown to Vancouver.

Dease Lake, a small northern community of about 400 people, has a medical clinic that is not equipped to handle medical emergencies that might require surgery. 

As a result, residents rely on medevac services to transport them to larger hospitals — sometimes for days at a time.

That’s what happened to Vanessa Higgins after she experienced complications from surgery.

Medevac delays have forced Dease Lake patients to wait for transport to the Lower Mainland for medical treatment. (BC Emergency Health Services/Twitter)

After waiting 48 hours for a medevac plane, an ambulance transported Higgins 257 kilometres north to Watson Lake to catch a flight to Vancouver.

“I can’t even tell you how scared she was,” said Higgins’ husband, Corey Higgins. 

The incident has made the family consider how difficult it may be to live in Dease Lake long term.

“We’ve been up there 15 years now and we’ve always believed that that’s the place where we wanted to stay and retire, but this and whatever’s in the future may have a lot to do with whether or not we’re able to stay,” he said. 

Why does it take so long?

In Dease Lake, medevac planes or helicopters have to land at the Stikine Regional Airport, which is primarily run by part-time volunteers. 

Between April 2018 and March 2019, there were 12 air ambulance responses in Dease Lake.

There is no de-icer on site in case of freezing rain, and the airport is not certified for nighttime landing, meaning the window of opportunity to fly in and out shrinks dramatically in the winter time. 

Bernie Van Der Kwast is the president of the Stikine Airport Society and unit chief for the B.C. Ambulance Service in Dease Lake. He said it’s frustrating not being able to do more for the people who come into the clinic.

“It’s a very small community and I know most of the people,” he said. “You want them to get out, but if the weather is not right or it’s unsafe to fly, the last thing we need in Dease Lake is to have an airplane crash.”

What can be done

Van Der Kwast would like to see a larger organization take over the operation of the airport.

“It should be run by the regional district,” he said. “Or it should be run by the province or something.”

Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson said not providing better access to medical transport not only hurts families, but could undermine the economic viability of the resource economy upon which the province relies. 

“If we want the B.C. economy to run on all the cylinders then the resource economy is a major part of that,” he said. “If you don’t have thriving, stable, viable communities in rural areas then you’re not going to have a viable, thriving resource economy that’s needed to contribute to the revenue of the rest of the province.”

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