Home care providers battle winter weather

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Winter storms and power outages challenge Respiratory Therapists working in home care, where a patient’s life is dependent on their ability to breathe.

“When you can’t breathe – as the Lung Association says – nothing else matters,” said Respiratory Therapist, Al Benton.

Benton works for Kingston Oxygen Home Health Care Centre. He was there when the Ice Storm of 1998 hit and over four million people in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick lost power. About 600,000 people had to leave their homes. Not easily done if you are at home and oxygen dependent.

When it was apparent that the power wasn’t coming back anytime soon, Benton’s 17 staff members gathered in the office. Using flashlights and flipping through paper files, they put their math skills to work, calculating who would run short of oxygen and when. Each patient was called to see how they were coping; unfortunately, few had back-up generators.

Benton, who in 1998 had been a Respiratory Therapist in the home care field for eight years, had never seen anything like the circumstances around the ice storm. He described two of his staff carrying a 150-pound tank of oxygen up a cold, dark apartment stairwell to a patient on the fourth floor, normally an easy delivery when the elevator works. He described some staff putting in 18-hour days to ensure no one ran out of oxygen. He also mentioned that not one staff member complained about the working conditions or long hours.

Home care is where the home is, regardless of the weather – even when it’s a three-hour return trip north on highway 41 to Vennachar Junction, neighboured by Madawaska River Provincial Park, and little else.

But it is the everyday challenges of providing continuous 24/7 home oxygen service to people that keeps Benton busy. Respiratory Therapists are trained to assess the oxygen needs of a patient and to oversee the delivery of oxygen to patients who need it, when they need it, as well. Sometimes, he helps patients by ensuring their application for the provincial government’s Home Oxygen Program is submitted with a doctor’s letter expressing the respiratory needs of the patient.

The paperwork is ongoing with an application re-submission and a review of eligibility requirements every 90 days, in some cases. Benton said, “You ask yourself, a patient with metastatic lung cancer – why would they be denied?” As he points out, once a patient becomes palliative, “the health-care system kicks it up a notch,” yet funding is still reviewed every 90 days.

Home care health services cultivate community support because of its visibility and its vulnerability. Hospitals are equipped but a patient’s home often is not. As Benton discovered during the Ice Storm crisis, it was the community effort of friends, family and neighbours that made patient care in the home possible.