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Bypassing the closest hospital: Why the worst injuries aren't treated in Surrey

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When 17-year-old Ethan Bespflug was fatally stabbed on King George Boulevard last week, first responders took him nine kilometres away to New Westminster even though Surrey Memorial Hospital was less than four blocks away.

In fact, any person with a penetrating injury to the torso and attended to by paramedics in the Fraser Health Authority is taken to Royal Columbian Hospital as it’s the only Level 1 trauma centre approved for treatment of the most serious injuries.

That came as a surprise to Bespflug’s mother, who was satisfied with the care her teen had at RCH last week, and wants to see top-tier medical treatment available at Surrey Memorial Hospital. 

“With all the acts of violence, that hospital in a large city it needs to have that,” said Holly Indridson. “It's overrun, they're short-staffed constantly, like severely.”

Fraser Health is British Columbia’s largest health authority, serving 1.9 million people with a dozen hospitals from Burnaby to Hope. Royal Columbian is the only one with Level 1 trauma teams and resources, and while Abbotsford is Level 3; SMH can only provide Level 4 trauma care.

DOCTORS SPEAK UP

Physicians at Surrey Memorial are deeply frustrated, because while Bespflug is a recent and jarring example given how close he was to them, they’ve often seen patients sent to RCH across large distances through considerable congestion – sometimes even going directly past them on King George.

“Time is everything in a trauma case and ideally intervention needs to be done -- if there's a loss of vital signs -- within 15 minutes in a penetrating trauma to the chest and that time becomes increasingly difficult the deeper you go into Surrey,” said Dr. Amol Lail, an emergency physician in the community.

He explained that if someone who’s been shot or stabbed in the chest is taken to SMH by a friend or family member, they will be treated. But that if that happens overnight, as recently happened for example, all the emergency resources go toward helping that one patient since there’s no resource planning for life-threatening injuries, as there are in the top trauma centres at Vancouver General and RCH. 

“Surrey Memorial, the busiest emergency department in the province essentially was shut down for 3 hours while the two emergency physicians on overnight and the entire intensive care and emergency medical team attended to this young man's care,” said Lail. “Thankfully all the outcomes were excellent.”

THE MINISTER RESPONDS

The provincial government has come under fire for the lack of cardiac services, neurosurgeons, and what’s criticized as insufficient services planned for an incoming hospital in Surrey’s Cloverdale area. 

When CTV News asked the health minister about both Level 1 trauma centres being north of the Fraser River, whereas the population to the south has grown dramatically, he defended their allocation of resources.

“Surrey has a very high priority, it's a critical hospital and we look at these issues all the time,” said Adrian Dix. “But we do organize our healthcare system not on municipal boundaries, but on the boundaries of regional health authorities.” 

Lail, who pointed out SMH is treating more kids in its emergency department each day than BC Children’s Hospital and is often the busiest emergency department in the country, said even raising the resources and staffing to a Level 2 status would be of tremendous help to people in the city.

“For a lot of us who've grown up in Fraser Health, whose families live in Fraser Health and who really care deeply about the city of Surrey as well as the general cities in the health authority, it really does pain us as a physician group that we're having a tragic incident just one minute away from our hospital and we didn't have the resources to assist this young man,” he said.

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