Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thanks for saving my life, but...

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I wonder what you would do if you were told that your legs needed to be amputated or you would die? Well, this was the situation I was put in three weeks ago when the muscles in my right thigh developed an infection which the doctors said was like flesh-eating disease.

There was no time to waste and no time to think about my answer. My immune system was "kaput" from all the chemotherapy treatments I had endured due to having non-Hodgkins lymphoma, so antibiotics were out of the question -- amputation was the only option.

I chose life, of course, and now I'm learning how to take my life one day at a time.

I began my "journey" at Misericordia's Urgent Care where I sat in excruciating pain for over three hours. When I was finally seen they did blood work but said they didn't know what it was, so they sent me by ambulance to the Grace Hospital (because that's where my oncologist practises). The next day, I had an ultrasound at the Grace and, because the results were "inconclusive," was transported to the St. Boniface General Hospital for an MRI. Still, the results weren't clear enough so doctors at the Grace asked a surgeon to do a biopsy of my thigh muscle. When he saw my leg, things really changed.

He did no biopsy, but instead rushed me to Health Sciences Centre where I underwent a double leg amputation in the middle of the night because the infection in my thigh muscles was spreading so rapidly.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm grateful to the fantastic doctors who saved my life. But, it seems to me that going to four different hospitals in two nights just to get a diagnosis is an inefficient way of spending our medical dollars. I fail to understand why Urgent Care didn't send me to Health Sciences Centre to begin with! What's worse is that I have since found out that flesh-eating disease is not as uncommon as you might think. In Manitoba, doctors see about three or four cases a year, which are treated by antibiotics or by amputation.

In terms of nursing care, it has gone from "Cadillac" to less than acceptable. In the Intensive Care Unit you have one nurse to each patient. I got whatever I needed. Whenever I coughed or moved she was by my side -- fabulous! I also found those nurses very honest and forthcoming with information about my situation, which I appreciated.

While I have been on the hospital ward there have been some wonderful nurses and aides who spend extra time explaining things or just talking to me.

One nurse had an animal character over her name. She told me that whenever any of the staff on her floor put their name tags down, this one staff member sticks a funny animal face on them. That's a great morale booster!

Conversely, I have had nurses who talk to each other loudly (while attending to me) about how tired they are and how they can hardly wait for their break or to get home. I have also lain in my own feces for an hour because there was no one available to come and clean me up. Why? You would think that a large and sophisticated institution such as the Health Sciences Centre could figure out how to stagger staff breaks so that the ward is adequately covered at all times.

The weekends are even more challenging. Since my stay on the hospital ward (following my initial surgery and now), they are always short-staffed on the weekend. Worse is that no replacements are ever sent. The result is overwork and frustration.

I question the structure of a system where one floor insisted they wanted their bed back (the one I was in) because it was their bed, even though it was identical to the ones on the floor I am currently on.

It's time-consuming, inconsequential and, in my opinion, takes away from the level of patient care.

However, there is no question that if it weren't for the fantastic doctors and nurses of the Health Sciences Centre, I would not be here writing this today.

Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2009 A16

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