Nunavut health centre down to minimum services amid nursing shortage
“We’re in dire straits right now”
(Updated at 3:30 p.m.)
“Baker Lake, the health centre is closed,” reads a Wednesday morning post to social media.
“Emergencies only will be seen. Please call before coming. Thank you for your patience.”
That’s nothing new for residents of Baker Lake, where the local health centre faces an ongoing shortage of nursing staff, who are working in a cramped and aging facility.
But community members say the centre has been down to just two nurses in recent months—in a centre meant to have 10—which has limited health care services to the bare minimum.
“We’re in dire straits right now in Baker Lake,” said the community’s MLA, Simeon Mikkungwak.
“This shortage has been going on for three years now. But we’ve been down to emergency calls only now for the last five or six weeks,” he said.
“If you call today and say you have an ear or a throat problem, you might be likely to see someone in three or four days.”
That’s been a problem this winter, when communities in the Kivalliq have seen an increase in respiratory illnesses.
But Mikkungwak said the poor access to health care has taken an even bigger toll on the community of 2,000; in the last three weeks alone, three community members have died by suicide.
Throughout 2018, Mikkungwak said the community’s Anglican church coordinated more than 50 funerals for Baker Lake residents who died of various causes.
And the demand for care is even greater now, following the closure of Baker Lake’s Martha Taliruq centre, an elders’ care facility that shut its doors last year.
The health centre also narrowly escaped a total loss in mid-December, when sources in the community say a fire broke out in one of the facility’s room, forcing a late-night evacuation. The centre sustained minimal smoke damage and re-opened the following day.
When asked about the shortage, the Government of Nunavut’s Health Department said that seven of the 10 nursing positions in Baker Lake are currently filled—six indeterminately, and one by a casual staffer.
Colleen Austin, the department’s assistant deputy minister of operations, said there are also two visiting mental health nurses in Baker Lake this week, with a third set to arrive later on Jan. 17.
“There is a nursing shortage throughout the country that uniquely impacts Nunavut due to contextual factors like geography, cost of living and availability of housing,” Austin said in a Jan. 17 statement emailed to Nunatsiaq News.
“Health is aware of the current impact staff shortages are having on services, and taking action to increase staffing levels.”
That action includes recruitment initiatives and a long-term recruitment and retention strategy that considers the well-being of current staff, she said.
But Mikkungwak said what the community needs now is stable and reliable care.
“In my opinion, a booming community with a gold mine in its own backyard, [the health centre] should be fully staffed,” he said.
“When you look at the health of our community, it’s been a real struggle.”
Mikkungwak said the centre itself is too small. Its waiting area fills easily and some patients are forced to share rooms while being treated.
The MLA said he has used his channels to the GN to emphasize the need for a new centre, but Baker Lake is essentially on a waiting list among other Nunavut communities in need.
Amid the closures, residents in Baker Lake say they’re grateful for the nursing staff in place for keeping basic services up and running.
A Baker Lake resident, who has to be medicated intravenously at the centre three times a day, said he’s been seen on schedule, although he sometimes has to share a room with another patient.
“They’ve been really good to me, even though they’re short staffed,” said the man, who did not want to be named.
Even with just a couple nurses on staff, Mikkungwak said the light remains on in the health centre every evening.
“I honestly think they must be exhausted,” he said. “It’s not a surprise that they go; they need to have good working conditions.”