Cancelled flights have northern Ont. hospital risking ER closure

With doctor shortages causing emergency rooms around the country to shut down, a northern Ontario hospital is scrambling to prevent the same fate.

Travelling physicians needed by Notre-Dame Hospital in Hearst to keep its ER open face chronic flight cancellations out of Toronto's Pearson airport, according to recruitment coordinator Melanie Goulet.

"Already we are having a hard time finding physicians to work in our small community, and having flight cancellations just complicates everything," said Goulet.

She had to ask another travelling doctor to work an extra 24 hours during the recent long weekend, when his replacement's flight was cancelled the day of its departure.

"It was about five hospitals over the past weekend that had to close their ER, and we were almost one of them also," Goulet said.

"I can't even imagine the day that we'll have to do that."

Dr. Vivian Ma was supposed to fly from Montreal to Timmins on June 30, and drive three hours north to fill a vacant spot at the Hearst hospital's ER.

She said after her first flight arrived in Toronto, Air Canada notified her that a connecting flight was cancelled and would be rescheduled for July 2, the day after her shift was scheduled to start.

Ma said it's a frustrating situation that's been going on for weeks.

"For the last two months, every single one of my flights coming here has been delayed, the three times I've come here in June, and all my flights have been cancelled," said Ma.

She said the only options are to book a flight with Porter, drive more than nine hours to Hearst or wait for the rebooked flight with Air Canada.

Ma said Porter's same-day flight to Timmins was fully booked during this latest mishap, so she bought a ticket for the next day.

"I promised to provide services, and not being able to come here and do the work that I promised to, knowing that emergency patients will not be seen here, it affects me in that sense," she said.

"I just want to be able to come here and fulfil my duties."

Staff shortages at Toronto airport

Management at the Timmins’ Victor M. Power airport said cancellations and delays have been affecting hundreds of passengers flying in and out of the city.

Issues at Pearson International Airport due to staffing shortages and construction delays are causing Air Canada flights north to be cancelled.

Timmins airport manager Dave Dayment said the airline is cutting flights in hopes of offering stability.

"They've reduced us to two flights a day and even at that, the last five days, the afternoon flight that leaves at 6 o'clock has been cancelled the last five days," Dayment said.

Monday's flight board showed an inbound and outbound flight had already been cancelled.

"The next three days, they are scheduled to be on time, but we won't know that until the day of."

Dayment said the level of coordination needed to land planes at an airport and get in the sky is such that any lack of efficiency or staff can set back schedules or cancel flights.

Timmins' airport is limiting delays on its end, he said.

With Pearson struggling to manage the hundreds of flights coming in, flight disruptions are inevitable.

He suggested passengers frequently check their flight's status and activate text alerts to be notified about delays or cancellations quickly.

For Ma, there's little security that her next flight to northern Ontario will operate on schedule, and she's trying to make contingency plans.

"I'm just pre-emptively buying a second ticket on the same day, in case Air Canada cancels my flight," she said.

Goulet added that other doctors she's talked to are making similar plans, buying several plane tickets with different airlines to ensure they make it to the hospital.

That's all at their own extra cost, she said.

'It might mean I can't come here anymore'

"There is so much planning I can do and coming this often, it's not always feasible to have five plans," said Ma.

"If, however, things fall through on my next travel here, then it might mean I can't come here anymore."

That's the worst fear for both Ma and Goulet, especially with the summer being one of the worst seasons for physician shortages.

Goulet said Notre-Dame Hospital is looking for a long-term solution.

"We're even thinking of approaching local people in our community that have planes, to see if they can take their own personal plane to go pick up a doctor," she said.

The hospital is even considering paying Ornge Air Ambulance to fly doctors into town, Goulet said.

The hospital intends to contact government officials and Air Canada to try and find a solution.

CTV reached out to Transport Canada for comment, which said it is working with federal agencies to address travel disruptions affecting the whole country.

"While progress has been made, some challenges remain, particularly for travellers facing flight cancellations and issues with baggage services," Transport Canada's senior communications adviser Sau Sau Liu said in an email.

"Work continues with air industry partners to further reduce the delays in the air travel system and Transport Canada will continue to update Canadians on the progress."

As for a small northern town that needs doctors to arrive at its hospital on time to provide care to the community, Goulet said Hearst can't handle this situation much longer.

"We need to have a doctor in our emergency room."