May 12, 2016
Story by Kirsten Goruk
Richard Duncan can still remember the view from the windows of the long-term care (LTC) unit at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre (NLRHC) on the day the wildfires threatening Fort McMurray resulted in a city-wide evacuation.
“I remember we were on the fourth floor and we were watching the fire down on the side of the hill. Every once and a while we’d see the flames shoot up,” recalls Duncan, 68. As the residents witnessed the fire growing, Alberta Health Services (AHS) staff were already preparing in case they had to evacuate the hospital.
Irene Manning, Clinical Liaison, Major Capital Projects knew that the director of the long-term care unit was on vacation, so she went to see how she could help. Together with Una Quinsey, manager of Allied Health, and the rest of the staff, they made a plan and got to work, identifying all of the patients, their care needs and how they would be moved out of the hospital.
“Everyone had their tasks. Some got bags of supplies, medications, the personal care items and hygiene types of things, others got dressing supplies for residents who had wounds and tube feeds and things like that,” Manning says.
“The health care aides were totally amazing, they were just fantastic, they might not have four years of university training but I tell ya – they knew their patients and they knew what their patients needed.”
In the midst of all of this, Manning remembered to check on the animal members of the LTC unit family. She soon realized the amazing staff of the department had already gotten them ready to evacuate as well.
“There was Cleo, the cat. And then there’s this box of gloves on top of the cat cage and I thought it was cat food or whatever and here it’s Chucky, the pet bird on the unit. Chucky was taped into a box a little bit bigger than a milk carton,” Manning says. She didn’t know the little bird’s real name – Sherlock - at the time, but dubbed him Chucky because he would later start chucking out the granola bars seeds they tried to feed him at the Firebag site.
Staff systemically moved all of the patients from the various floors down to the front lobby so that they could safely and quickly be evacuated. Those helping the LTC residents made sure they were fed and received their evening medication during that time.
“The staff acted so professionally. The training they have really paid off,” says Duncan. “I had to babysit the bird. He and Cleo made it to Edmonton. They’re city slickers now.”
In less than two hours, physicians and staff safely evacuated 73 acute care patients (including nine newborns) and 32 continuing care residents onto buses that transported them to the relative safety of Suncor’s Firebag site. It took seven hours to drive through the gridlock of traffic to Firebag and early Wednesday morning they were flown to Edmonton.
Manning says the support and care that AHS and Suncor’s employees offered to the patients and LTC residents while they waited was incredible. Cleo did her part too.
“Cleo was an excellent comfort to the residents, a few in particular. They love her and they all knew that Cleo was in the kennel and was going to be okay, and was part of the family,” she says.
When the plane arrived in Edmonton, Manning and her co-worker headed to a hotel in Leduc. They’d been awake for 36 hours straight and instead of immediately crashing, they went to a local pet store to pick up supplies for Cleo and Chucky – whose real name is Sherlock, as she’d find out later. The store donated many things they needed and the two were finally able to get some rest.
Manning’s family is safe, but she did have to leave behind her own two cats at her house. She continues to care for her evacuee pets in the meantime while they wait on word.
Duncan is being cared for at the Salem Manor Nursing Home in Leduc. He misses his home on the unit, but some of his fellow residents are staying at Salem Manor as well.
“I’m doing alright. When I got here I had nothing, not even a wheelchair, my electric one was left at Firebag, but three days later my wheelchair showed up. AHS staff made sure I got it,” he says.
“I would like to thank them a million times. I appreciate everything they did.”