Dr. Tom Rich is not one to mince words. The success or failure of Calgary's unprecedented decision to close its only downtown hospital and emergency ward will be measured not in dollars saved, he says, but in lives lost. “I shudder to think what’s going to happen,” says the passionate 31-year-old, who spent the past three years working in the high intensity of the General’s “Emerg.” For months, Rich has been relentless in his public criticism, saying the most vulnerable are being abandoned with the General’s closure. “This is an emergency [department] that handled 50,000 people a year and many of them were the poor street people, ones suffering from mental illness who needed this place,” Rich says. “What happens to them?”
It is a question many have been posing since the General’s demise was announced in July, 1994, in the name of efficiency. As of April 9, all three of Calgary’s acute-care emergency wards are in suburban hospitals. The regional health authority that oversaw the closure argues that what matters is not how long it takes for a patient to get to an emergency ward, but how quickly emergency medical technicians in an ambulance can get to the scene and stabilize a patient. In Calgary, an ambulance arrives, on average, 5V2 minutes after a call is received. But Rich notes that only 20 per cent of the people who sought the hospital from the General’s emergency arrived by ambulance. Most turned up on foot or by public transit.
He also disputes studies tracking postal codes of patients that indicated the vast majority using the General’s emergency came from outside the downtown area—many in the city’s northeast where a new 24-hour, fully equipped emergency ward is now operating at the Peter Lougheed hospital. “Those findings don’t take into account that many of those were working downtown or visiting the city and staying downtown,” Rich says. During the annual Calgary Stampede in July, when the city is flooded with visitors, the General’s emergency ward often treated upwards of 300 people daily. This summer, the absence of downtown emergency service will get a severe test when Calgary hosts an anticipated 10,000 visitors at the World Police/Fire Games, just before the Stampede.
Dr. Rob Abernethy, who spent 13 years in the General’s emergency and advised the provincially appointed body that closed the downtown hospital, admits to nagging doubts. Abernethy says the three emergency departments now in operation, coupled with a fast-response road and helicopter ambulance system, should give Calgary the service it needs. "But the bottom line is we don’t have a downtown hospital, and what does that really mean?” he wonders. “Nobody knows because it hasn’t been done before.” Only time and, critics warn, tragic experience, will provide an answer.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.