Until Wednesday, Ruth Sampson had lived in Stonewall for 100 years.
Now she's in a hospital 2 1/2 hours away, and her family fears Auntie Ruth may die alone.
Sampson is one of the Manitoba patients who've undergone a long-distance hospital transfer under a provincial policy meant to shore up acute-care capacity during the fourth wave of the pandemic. She was transferred to a hospital in Crystal City, more than 200 kilometres southwest of her home.
Since learning the transfer was a possibility, "there's been a lot of sleepless nights, I can honestly tell you that," said niece Linda Tyerman, her primary caregiver.
Sampson lived independently with home care in Stonewall until she broke her ribs in a fall last month and spent 46 days in a Stonewall hospital bed until Wednesday.
There is a two-year wait for a bed at the personal-care home in Stonewall and the family hasn't been able to find a space for her in Selkirk, their second choice. They don't know how long she'll be in Crystal City or whether ― or where ― she'll be moved next.
"We asked her how the ambulance ride was. She said, 'Well, it was a little bumpy, and it was pretty cold,'" Tyerman said.
She and her husband Dave Tyerman say there must be a better solution in the health system's battle with COVID-19, one that doesn't put seniors at risk.
They are "devastated" Sampson has been sent so far away, and they know there are many other families in the same position.
"She's really special to us, but every family has that. We're not alone, we know that," Dave Tyerman said.
The provincewide transfer policy was announced Oct. 1 as a necessary "operational step."
In a statement emailed to the Free Press Thursday, a Shared Health spokesperson acknowledged the stress the situation is causing.
"We recognize patient transfers to different sites ― particularly sites located in other health regions ― can be unsettling and disruptive for both patients and their families," the statement read.
"While we understand families may have some concerns regarding these transfers, we want to provide reassurance that hospitals across Manitoba continue to provide high-quality care."
The Tyermans said they understand the policy is in place as an urgent measure to protect hospital capacity so Manitoba doesn't have to send intensive-care patients out of province, as was the case during the third COVID wave last spring.
But the problems related to Manitoba's aging population existed long before the pandemic, and the government has to address them, Dave Tyerman said.
"We've had two years of COVID. I get that, I know it's hard on the government. I know it's hard on people. It's not something we get a lot of practice at, thank God, but having said that, what have we learned from this? We had people dying... alone, because nobody could sit at their bedside. And here we are now, creating that same problem on our own free will. Ruth is 100. She could pass tomorrow, she might live another six months, we don't know."
A drive-by parade marked her 100th birthday in Stonewall in July ― about 100 people turned up to celebrate the centenarian's lifelong contributions to the community ― contributions her family feels are being disrespected now.
"Ruth is 100. She could pass tomorrow, she might live another six months, we don't know." – Dave Tyerman, family member
NDP Leader Wab Kinew spoke about Sampson's situation in question period Thursday and called on the Tory government to stop the out-of-community transfers of elderly Manitobans awaiting care-home placement.
"Moving seniors in their time of need to free up beds is simply the wrong move and shows we haven't learned any of the lessons of the pandemic under this PC government," Kinew said remotely from his home, where he is self-isolating because of his recent COVID-19 diagnosis.
Deputy premier Kelvin Goertzen responded by saying the effects of the pandemic have been devastating for people across the globe.
He said the provincial government is relying on health-care experts to try to minimize those impacts as much as possible and determine where people should be placed within the health-care system.
"We know that it’s important to listen to those health-care experts," Goertzen said.
“We know that it’s important to listen to those health–care experts." – Deputy premier Kelvin Goertzen
In an interview Thursday afternoon, Kinew said the government's response doesn't inspire confidence. The NDP has heard from a number of families who've raised similar concerns, including one whose relative faces the prospect of being transferred from Selkirk to Flin Flon, more than seven hours away. They're stressed and they want to be able to see their loved ones for the holidays, he said.
"Given the tragedies that we've seen play out in personal-care homes... I think any reasonable Manitoban, and any compassionate person in our province, would have expected that we could do better by seniors at this point," he said.
"The failure to invest in staffing and in the operation of personal-care homes is now playing out in a way that's damaging families, but it could have been prevented."
― With files from Danielle Da Silva
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.