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As Stanton Territorial Hospital marked its grand opening Friday, Union of Northern Workers president Todd Parsons said nurses are stressed out, overworked and understaffed.

Parsons – who was not invited to the ceremony – told Yellowknifer nurses feel “drained” and “at risk.” 

In addition, there have been instances of unsanitary conditions at the hospital due to a shortage of cleaners, he said.

Some nurses wore pins that state “worried but working,” to the grand opening of the new Stanton Territorial Hospital on Friday.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

There were also “four or five” major instances when industrial floor cleaning machines were used improperly and were “dragging (feces) throughout the hospital.”

“It’s extremely frustrating for nurses and allied health care professionals to be witness to this,” he said. “There’s literally feces on the floor that’s not being dealt with safely or appropriately.”

There simply aren’t enough cleaning staff, according to Parsons, who added wait times to have rooms cleaned are often in excess of two hours because calls for service are handled externally.

“Nurses have to call, for example, Toronto to get a cleaner to come and clean a particular room,” he said.

He said staff shortages are hospital-wide and that nurses are often tasked with picking up the slack. 

“There are nurses cleaning up hospital beds so they can have patients move from one section of the hospital such as (emergency), to one of the wards, such as medicine,” said Parsons. 

When Yellowknifer asked whether the hospitals industrial floor cleaning machines were being handled improperly, the hospital’s Chief Operating Officer Kim Riles said, “We’ve certainly had lots of glitches with the building as we moved in, as you do with every new building.”

She said it typically takes six months for a building like a hospital to stabilize its systems.

“We’ve had some door issues, we’ve had elevator issues and we’ve had some issues related to toilets backing-up or sewage related issues,” said Riles. 

She also acknowledged concerns around the quality of the hospital’s food services.

A private firm, Dexterra, has been contracted to provide facility management for the next 30 years. It provides the hospital’s food, housekeeping, laundry, security and building maintenance.

The issue of staff shortages at Stanton came to light in an anonymous letter sent to hospital management that was obtained by Yellowknifer last month. The letter described a “daily struggle” to find nurses and beds for patients in the old hospital and predicted the problems would persist in the new one.

In response to the letter, Sue Cullen, CEO of the NWT Health and Social Services Authority, said recruiting strategies were being implemented in response to staffing concerns. 

Health Minister Glen Abernethy spoke at Stanton hospital’s grand opening on Friday.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Health Minister Glen Abernethy told Yellowknifer that rising graduation rates among nurses could also help address the shortage. He added that work has begun with human resources to expedite the recruitment process. He said efforts have targeted universities to have nursing students consider careers in the NWT.

He added a committee has also been established with UNW and a nursing leadership network has been tasked with finding ways to attract nurses.

“It’s a priority. We have to work with all of our partners: UNW, nurses, other bodies to solve these problems. But we’re not alone. We’re not alone at all,” he said.

‘Worried but working’

To demonstrate their concerns, some nurses wore pins that stated “worried but working” to Friday’s grand opening.

Frank Walsh, union local 11 president, said the pins had “many meanings,” depending on the individual. He said the staff wanted support from union leadership and to draw attention to their working conditions.

“I’m worried that when I get a day off, I’m called in. I’m worried about my patients. I’m worried about my staffing levels,” he said.

Hospital management and staff both recognize that health care professionals are “at a premium” and the shortage has impacted all of Canada, he said.

During a meeting with hospital management on July 11, he was informed there would be a recruitment plan that would be launched shortly, he said.

In the meantime, some Stanton hospital nurses plan on wearing their pins indefinitely, he said.

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Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...