How do you move hundreds of patients out of the way of forest fires?
With a crew of dedicated staff, said Trevor White, operations manager for the Abbotsford-based company Hospital Transfers.
“I am so proud of them,” he said of his employees, who spent days moving 184 patients around the province as fires threatened numerous communities, including Merritt, Vernon and Kelowna. And this all happened during the same time frame that B.C.’s main highways were closed for various emergencies.
White was finally catching his breath Thursday, when he spoke to The News about the harrowing few days that have just passed.
“This all started (last) Friday morning,” he said. “I got a phone call from the Ministry of Health that there was an evacuation alert for Lillooet Hospital.”
The Ministry of Health is his company’s only client, and his team of about 230 staff normally transfer about 400 to 500 patients a day within the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland. The patients’ conditions range in needs, from being able to walk and travel in a bus, to needing wheelchairs or stretchers.
White said in 30 years of transporting patients, he’s never seen the scale of operation needed to move people around. This all involved constant contact with the Ministry of Health, including calls with Minister of Health Adrian Dix. It was a gargantuan, critical effort to keep those most vulnerable safe.
Each hospital they evacuated, or decamped, had different transportation needs. Nineteen of the Lillooet patients were sent to North Vancouver, and one was sent to Penticton. These were critical patients on stretchers, White said.
But the “fun” really started on Monday morning, Aug. 16, when they were called in to decamp hospitals in Vernon and Merritt and Kelowna. They had to get help from BC Transit and Westjet, along with 17 buses. There were patients that were driven to Quesnel, 100 Mile and Williams Lake, but more had to get to the Lower Mainland.
Seats were removed from planes to accommodate wheelchairs. Patients were triaged based on whether they were able to walk.
All of this was under a bright red sky that felt like being on Mars, he underlined.
And then, they got the call that the planes couldn’t fly. They already had the patients loaded and ready to go. But then, the highways started closing, and they had to find places not just for the patients who were mid-transfer, but also all of the dozens of drivers.
Most of them ended up at the Grand Villa in Kelowna, where they were able to catch a quick nap before collecting all the patients again, in an ever-changing fire situation.
But it was at that hotel that White was moved to tears. When he pulled up to the front entrance at 3 a.m. on Tuesday, he saw a parking lot full of their yellow and red transport vehicles, and he was bowled over with pride.
“It was just a mass of yellow ambulances,” he said. “It literally brought a tear to my eye.”
He said not one employee complained about the long days and nights, the uncertain conditions, or the constantly changing logistics they were dealing with.
“They could have said no,” he said, but instead rose to the challenge and got the job done with a smile. When it was all said and done, one of his employees back in Abbotsford even ran out to a drive-thru and brought back 50 hamburgers and fries to treat the drivers to a quick snack.
He wanted to share the story with the community so they understand the work that goes on behind the scenes, and so people know there are plans in place for emergencies.
“We picked up one lady and it was her 100th birthday,” he added.
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