Good morning. Wendy Cox here today.
Savita Ahuja’s mother spent 90 minutes in agony waiting for an ambulance to arrive to attend to her father, who was drifting in and out of sleep on one of the hottest days ever recorded in Surrey. Gian Goel died the next day, June 27.
Maura De Freitas waited 10 hours for an ambulance to arrive to tend to her 68-year-old step-brother, Kevin Butler, who had autism and lived in a residential care home. Mr. Butler suffered from heat stroke and died the following day.
Like other provinces, British Columbia has been on high alert during the COVID-19 crisis, carefully watching to ensure mounting numbers of sick patients didn’t overwhelm the health-care system. B.C. succeeded. But suffocating temperatures in degrees never before seen in British Columbia – up to 49.6 degrees in Lytton – between June 25 and July 1 exposed serious gaps in the system’s ability to respond to a large-scale, unexpected emergency.
Paramedics say they were massively overwhelmed and question how the system, as currently structured, could possibly respond to other major events, such as a catastrophic earthquake. There were 777 sudden deaths reported during last month’s “heat dome” – which is nearly four times the average number of people that died during this period in recent years.
Premier John Horgan said again Tuesday there was no way to prepare for such “a-once-in-a-1,000-year” event, but conceded authorities should have been better prepared and promised they will be as the unseasonably hot summer continues.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said changes would be coming as early as Wednesday to reform the body overseeing the province’s 4,500 paramedics, emergency call takers and dispatchers. But his ministry also blamed the previous government, saying a “decade of underinvestment” was partly to blame. The NDP have governed B.C. for four years.
The ministry said it will be working with B.C.’s Emergency Health Services and the union “to find solutions” to the additional challenges caused by climate change.
“Recent events tell us there is more work to do to make sure that when people call for help, they get help in a timely way,” the ministry said in its statement. “The heat wave was tragic. We offer our condolences to British Columbians who lost loved ones. We also offer our continuing resolve to address climate change, and to adjust to the new realities as a province and a health system.”
The coroner’s service is investigating the deaths, but it’s expected to take many weeks before there are any conclusions about why so many people were left in conditions that led to their deaths.
Grieving families, though, are left to come to terms with their losses.
Ms. Ahuja said her father was her best friend – they used to talk each day, and he was planning a trip to visit her in India next month. She said he was funny and dependable.
Mr. Butler loved country and western music, and enjoyed watching hockey, car racing and baseball. His step-sister said he was a “very sweet and a very gentle soul” who “felt very deeply.”
“It was such a privilege to walk beside him,” Ms. De Freitas said. “My life was enriched.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.