Staffing local chemo program remains a challenge

Haida Gwaii cancer patients may once again need to make costly trips off island due to a shortage of nurses trained in chemotherapy.

Haida Gwaii cancer patients may once again need to make costly trips off island due to a shortage of nurses trained in chemotherapy.

Since 2010, islanders who need chemotherapy have been able get it at Queen Charlotte Hospital.

But local treatments were disrupted in October, forcing patients to Prince Rupert.

If a trained nurse is not found in time, local service could be disrupted again after Dec. 15.

“It’s certainly a priority issue,” says Michael Melia, Northern Health’s administrator of health services for Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert.

“We recognize how important it is for residents to have this service close to home.”

Until this year, Melia said Haida Gwaii was well served by a chemotherapy-trained nurse living in Queen Charlotte. Others were occasionally called in from Terrace and Prince Rupert to help.

But since the long-time nurse had to leave the position, Northern Health has struggled to find a permanent, or even a temporary replacement.

A nurse who was due to fill-in this October had to cancel unexpectedly.

Not only was there no back-up available among Northern Health staff, none of the province-wide nursing agencies had anyone available, either.

“Unfortunately, we hit a situation where we had a number of plans in place, and all of them fell through,” said Melia, noting that other parts of B.C. are facing the same problem.

Part of the trouble is that nurses trained in chemotherapy need to administer the drugs at least 50 times a year to stay certified.

On Haida Gwaii, that sometimes means sending the local nurse off island to keep his or her certification something Northern Health and Queen Charlotte Hospital staff have been willing to arrange.

“We make that happen,” said Melia, noting that Northern Health and local physicians made sure the new Haida Gwaii Hospital has a dedicated space for cancer care. Four doctors on island have undergone extra oncology training to be able to prescribe chemotherapy.

“As a group, the physicians are really committed,” said Melia, and so is Northern Health.

“We’re working hard to make sure we can provide a service that is sustainable for the future.”