It was near midnight on Monday, April 22 when a text message sparked the need for an urgent conference call with Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) staff.
A wildfire burning out of control near the Town of Biggar, combined with shifting and changing winds, was threatening the community and the Biggar and District Health Centre had been placed on standby for evacuation.
With the fire already forcing the closure of one highway out of town, the SHA team quickly began their assessment of the situation. An evacuation would be no simple task, as there were 53 long term care residents and eight acute care patients inside the facility, all with very different and specialized care needs. The team knew they would need time to get them out safely, and plans were made to start with the evacuation of the acute care patients to neighboring Rosetown and District Health Centre while finalizing plans and preparations for long term care residents to move elsewhere.
They were still on a conference call at 1:15 a.m. on April 23 when they received word from fire officials to evacuate.
“Once that call was made, everyone just jumped into action,” said Gayle Riendeau, Executive Director Acute Care, Integrated Rural Health, of the staff members, physicians, and emergency services in Biggar and Rosetown that night.
The calls started to go out and in less than an hour, the necessary transportation support was secured through EMS, Medavie Health Services West, Town of Biggar, Town of Rosetown, and the Sun West School Division. The evacuation of eight acute care patients to Rosetown, and 53 long term care residents to Saskatoon City Hospital was then underway.
“We were able to safely and efficiently evacuate everyone, thanks to the tremendous efforts of everyone involved, including our on-call team, our emergency medical services, government partners, all of the staff on duty in Biggar, and those who weren’t on duty, but came in to help,” says Riendeau.
Pam Molnar, Director of System Flow in Saskatoon, was the director on-call in Saskatoon that night. She helped lead the transfer on the Saskatoon side, as the long term care residents began arriving at Saskatoon City Hospital around 3 a.m.
“It was so important to us that everyone made it from Biggar safe and sound, and that they would be as comfortable as possible while they were here in Saskatoon,” she said.
As busloads of residents were brought in to Saskatoon City Hospital, each was greeted with a smile and a friendly conversation with a staff member as they were taken to their temporary home on the third floor. One long term care resident, who was brought from Biggar to Saskatoon on a school bus remarked that she felt young again, riding a bus just as she had as a little girl.
All 53 residents were kept together on one unit at City Hospital, and were cared for by staff members from Biggar and District Health Centre, which gave many residents the comfort of seeing familiar faces at their new temporary home-away-from-home.
“It was truly a team effort,” noted Nadia Maruschak Clay, a member of the team assembled at City Hospital to receive the residents from Biggar. “Our on-call team, unit manager and staff, registration staff and security team really did an amazing job, and ensured our visitors were safely settled once they arrived in Saskatoon.”
During their time at City Hospital, much was made of the new visitors to Saskatoon.
“Saskatoon-based staff were wonderful and accommodating in having the long term care residents and their care staff from Biggar in Saskatoon; in a way, it felt as though we had houseguests come to visit us, and when they left, the house felt empty,” laughed Rosine Garabedian, Site Leader for Saskatoon City Hospital.
For three more days, firefighters in the Biggar area worked diligently to contain the wildfire and protect the nearby community. During that time, patients and residents were safely cared for in Rosetown and Saskatoon.
“During the entire week, our SHA teams connected regularly to talk about new developments, ensure that our patients and residents were receiving the best possible care, and that their families were kept informed about what was happening,” noted Maruschak Clay.
When it was determined that the fire was under control and fire officials were able to give clearance for evacuees to return, the team began finalizing and enacting a plan to transport all patients and long-term care residents back to their home community on Thursday and Friday.
“We couldn’t have done it without the help of our partners such as Medavie Health Services West, City of Saskatoon, First Group, Town of Biggar and Town of Rosetown, who moved around schedules and staffing to help provide us the specialized transportation we needed to bring everyone home safely and comfortably,” said Russell Laidlaw, Director of Protective Services in Saskatoon. “We are so thankful for their help and support.”
Patients who were evacuated to the Rosetown and District Health Centre were brought back on Thursday, and were very understanding and cooperative during this challenging time for everyone.
Biggar Acute care nursing and emergency medical services staff waiting to welcome the acute care patients who had been transferred to Rosetown back to Biggar
Those who had been moved to Saskatoon were prepared to begin their journey home first thing Friday morning. Nutrition and Food Services staff jumped in at the last minute to pack breakfast-on-the-go packs for the residents to eat on their way home. Everyone was relaxed and taking the adventure in stride, including one resident who jokingly requested to make a pit stop at a tavern to “grab a two-four” on the way home.
The fun didn’t stop once they got back home to Biggar. Upon arrival, patients and residents were greeted to an incredibly warm welcome, complete with signs saying “Welcome Home!” and “We missed you!” throughout the facility, and huge smiles from staff who were thrilled that everyone made it back safely.
A member of the Biggar staff enthusiastically greets residents as they arrive home.
Staff at the Biggar Health Centre were excited to greet residents as they arrived home last week.
The signage that greeted residents when they arrived back in Biggar.
“We owe so much to the hard work and quick thinking of our staff members and physicians who, across the province, worked together seamlessly to ensure our patients and residents were kept safe during some tense moments,” said Jeannie Munro, Executive Director, Primary Health Care, Integrated Rural Health for the SHA, who was part of the team handling the evacuation. “They exceeded our expectations, as not only were patients and residents kept safe, but our staff went above and beyond to do the little things to make it a positive experience whenever possible. We can’t thank them enough for everything they have done.”