Alberta Health Services Patient Advocacy

On October 18, 2012, I wrote a letter to the Alberta Minister of Health and the Administration staff at the Royal Alexandra  Hospital,  outlining my disastrous experience with hospital staff during my  day surgery.  Please see the letter below.  

There was a meeting arranged within weeks with all representatives from the hospital.  It was explained to me that my letter had been circulating around the hospitals in Alberta and had made its way to BC, as a catalyst for change with patient care and elderly care.

When I met with hospital officials to have my issues addressed, I was satisfied that measures were taken to ensure that these types of incidences would be reduced through consequences and training being given to the staff involved.  I was also asked to be a part of an “Alberta Patient Care and Advocacy” committee, to add a voice to their table.

Here is the letter I wrote :

October 18th, 2012

To The Honourable Minister of Health Fred Horne,  

Please allow me to take this opportunity to relate you my very negative experience during the Discectomy Laminectomy surgery I had at the Royal Alexandra Hospital on October 16th of this year.  In total I have had six surgeries in my lifetime.  Four of which were c-sections, one being a previous Discectomy and this recent surgery.  I am not inexperienced when it comes to the procedures and protocols of a hospital setting. 

I own a successful fitness company where several of my members who work for Alberta Health Services and many other professionals so I am very familiar in dealing with and communicating with educated people.  I am an active fund raiser and have many contacts with the media and local political persons. 

On October 16 I was admitted to the hospital at 9:20am and was prepared for surgery in the Day Surgery ward without incident.  The admitting staff were very professional and patient, and exactly what I had come to expect from the Royal Alexandra Hospital as I had a surgery only five months prior.

At 10:30 I was taken up to the Pre-operating room, again without incident.

I was then taken to the Theatre Room 10 for my scheduled surgery with Dr. Kortbeek.  I was wheeled into the operating room by a nurse who then asked two other persons who were already in the room about where the fourth person was.  One of the two informed the nurse that the absent person was gone for lunch.  The first nurse then stormed out of the operating room and came back quite agitated after a few minutes.  She was followed in a few minutes later by the fourth person, who tried to explain that she had already received permission to go for lunch.  The nurse cut off this explanation as she turned to me and said, “you’ve got to love the politics in this hospital – don’t you?”  To which I had no response as I was waiting for surgery.  This exchange left me feeling very uncomfortable as I was in a very vulnerable situation and didn’t feel I should have to witness discord amongst my surgical team.  

If this was the only negative interaction I had with the staff at the hospital that day in all honesty I would not be writing you for I do believe that people are genuinely good and we all have our moments, but please continue to read as you will see why I am so compelled to write to you and tell you my story.

The second incident that I will relate to you concerns the anesthetic that was given to me.  As I previously mentioned, I have been ‘put under’ several times before but I have never experienced this kind of excruciating pain before.  I was told to expect a slight burn which is similar to my previous experience, but I was not prepared for the terrible burning pain as the anesthesiologist administered the solution into my IV.  It felt like my arm was being cut open and acid poured on it.  I actually felt myself hyper-ventilate and was told repeatedly by the staff to breath into the mask.  At this point I grabbed the mask with my other hand and tried to communicate with the staff how much pain I was experiencing.  I was panicking because I wasn’t ‘going under’ in the normal time frame according to my previous experience, and was still experiencing the horrific pain as well.  Because the staff didn’t seem to be responding to my cries, I also began to grab at my IV which I assume was the source of my pain, I was then pinned down which of course only contributed to the utter helplessness and panic I was experiencing.  Finally after hoping for sleep or death to relieve me of the pain, I was thankfully rendered unconscious after what seemed an interminable time.

I would like a written explanation of what went wrong from the anesthesiologist that was in charge of my care as well as an acknowledgement from him that he understands how absolutely horrifying that experience is for anyone to live through - as I am sure this could have been prevented with due diligence.

During my surgeon’s assessment in recovery he explained that he would like to keep me overnight for observation because of the extreme pain in my leg and because of the amount of pain medication administered.  The room that I was assigned to for rest and recovery from surgery had four beds instead of the normal two and two of those beds were occupied by geriatric patients who obviously were also suffering from severe dementia.  My first exposure to this setting was to hear a nurse screaming back at one of these patients, as if trying to out-do the chaos caused by the elderly woman. 


When I turned to the nurse that was assigned to me, and asked if there was another room, his response was, “don’t be surprised to find a 5th or 6th bed in here when you wake up tomorrow morning.  That’s what it’s been like around here.”  I then stated how concerned and disbelieving I was to this situation and received the response, “yah, well try working here.”  For approximately two hours I was subjected to hearing all the nurses on this ward venting their frustration and anger at the working conditions and at the patients they were expected to deal with.  For example: at one point a male nurse or LPN came into our room and proceeded to scream at a woman in a chair, “Ellen, you’re not the only patient here!  They’re other people to look after!  Go to sleep and shut your mouth!”  A second female nurse then gave the first nurse a high five and said, “Way to show her who’s boss!” 

For approximately two hours I was in utter disbelief and was not at all comfortable with the possibility of staying over-night.  I did not feel safe or well cared for as I watched the staff repeatedly belittle and berate the old ladies who were both clearly beyond comprehending their “caregivers.”    When I asked to be discharged, I was told by a male doctor that they would make sure I was given something to induce sleep so that I would not have to hear the turmoil in the room – this did not seem like a good solution considering I was already heavily medicated with pain killers.  Nor did I feel that I could place my trust in these caregivers while unconscious, not after witnessing numerous events of aggressive, unprofessional and angry behavior - what I would call bullying and elder abuse in no uncertain terms.

The staff were all in agreement though, that this was not an environment conducive to healing, but all felt a lack of power to change it.  One doctor, after giving me all the reasons medically why I shouldn’t leave the hospital at this time, also shared with me his personal thoughts on the subject.  He stated that if this was his family member, his advice to them would be to do exactly what I was planning on doing and leave.  But do him a favor, once I got home, and tell as many people as I could (media and politicians) how bad the situation is.   The system is not working and the hospitals are broken and are in crisis. These wards are being bombarded with geriatric patients whom no one wants and they are forced to take care of them, with no training, in an already taxed environment. 

My husband and I were extremely incredulous that these medical professionals were confiding in us, as if we and especially I could possibly do something to fix their working environment.  I was recovering from surgery!  I was not there to mediate or solve the “crisis”.    Another example of this is when my nurse decided it would be a great idea to let me know how bad the working conditions are as one of the elderly patients was screaming at him for help.  And in between telling me how bad it all is, he would yell back at her to wait for him.  He told me that 40% of the staff are on stress leave and how nobody wants to work there – and he himself is working 12 hour shifts, six days a week, etc., etc., etc.    

I don’t care how bad the working conditions are, it does not excuse anyone from withholding basic human decency when caring for our elderly.  Instead I heard, “this is the 6th time she’s done this!  She can wait!” when one of these ladies soiled herself.

Now let me reiterate that I was only on this ward for approximately two hours before leaving.  As I left one of the male nurses or LPN’s pumped his arm up and down and said, “You go girl!”  As I walked down the hallway, I couldn't help but feel that I had just experienced something extremely surreal.   Knowing I had been there just five short months ago for my first back surgery and had received excellent care – from the exact same hospital and the same supposedly “taxed system”.   This time I couldn’t get out of there quick enough - even with the knowledge that I was putting myself at risk.  I felt I had no other choice.  Now I would like to say that I realize that our health care system is not perfect, but there is no reason that I or any other Albertan should ever be subjected to the level of unprofessional and uncaring attitude shown by the staff members that I had the misfortune of encountering when I was at my weakest and most vulnerable.

I would like those involved in my care on the 16th of October to be investigated, with consequences and procedures put in place to guarantee this never happens to another patient in our health care system.  I look forward to your response.

Yours truly,
Cheryl Schneider