She was told her toddler needed a doctor within 24 hours. But she couldn't find one

Three people, all wearing red plaid, hug and smile. The person in the middle is a young child. 6 December 2022 08:19 AM: Julia Murray, right, says she started to panic while trying to get care for her three-year-old son, Jack, when he got a high fever. (Submitted by Julia Murray)

Julia Murray, a mother living in Conception Bay South, says she was in panic mode on Thursday.

Her three-year-old son had a fever of 42 C, and children's fever medicine wasn't putting a dent in it. She called 811, which is staffed by public health nurses.

"They told me that based on the symptoms that he has, I need to see a doctor within 24 hours," she said.

Murray is one of the lucky people in Newfoundland and Labrador who have a family physician — according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, about 125,000 people in the province don't — but her doctor didn't have any openings until the following Wednesday.

She was turned away when she showed up with her son in person; the clinic had reached its cap for the day. Next, she tried the Mundy Pond walk-in clinic; it was full too. She tried the emergency room at the Janeway Children's Hospital in St. John's, but was told she'd be waiting for hours with her sick child.

"I felt like I was kind of on an island by myself," she said. 

"I can't believe that in 2022 that's what we're doing. We're kind of banging on doors to try to get help."

She said the receptionist at the Mundy Pond walk-in clinic advised her to line up at the clinic at 7 a.m. the next day. When she arrived, there was already about a dozen people ahead of her, and soon about two dozen behind.

"Some of those didn't even make it through," she said.

The doctor prescribed antibiotics for her son, who had strep throat and an ear infection. Despite the stressful experience, Murray said her son was lucky.

Demand at the Janeway emergency room has surged over the past month. (Paul Daly/CBC)

She said she witnessed a parent and child arrive at the clinic in a taxi, only to be be put on a wait-list.

"If I was turned away, I was able to get in my car and go home, or drive to another place," she said.

"I was able to have that luxury of not relying on a taxi."

Janeway ER visits nearly triple in a month

Pediatric emergency rooms across the country have seen a surge in respiratory illness among children, and that surge has now reached Newfoundland and Labrador.

Dr. Carolyn Cashin, a physician in the Janeway emergency room, says demand has jumped from 55 daily visits to 160 or more in less than a month.

"To say that there's been an increase in patients is like an understatement," she said.

On Friday, Eastern Health announced some routine surgeries and appointments would have to be cancelled in order to cope with the rise in patients. Cashin said Eastern Health has asked other pediatricians to help with emergency care, if possible.

"Certain resources had to be mobilized in order to meet the more acute, urgent need," she said.

A person wearing a white coat and stethoscope stands in front of a sign which reads
Dr. Carolyn Cashin, a pediatrician in the Janeway emergency department, says it isn't clear how long the surge in patients will last. (Darrell Roberts/CBC)

She said the emergency department is seeing patients as efficiently as possible and has started a new clinic to help cope with the increase.

Cashin said it isn't clear how long surge in patients will continue, but considering Newfoundland and Labrador's lengthy flu season, she isn't expecting it to end any time soon.

"This is only the beginning," she said.

In an interview with Crosstalk, Health Minister Tom Osborne said as of Monday afternoon, no surgeries have been cancelled — yet.

"There may be situations if we see a higher increase in respiratory illness," he said.

How to know if your child needs to go to the ER

Cashin said if a parent is unsure if their child needs urgent care, it's a good idea to call 811.

She cautioned that fever by itself doesn't necessarily require a trip to the emergency room.

"Our fevers are our natural defence mechanism to fight off infections," said Cashin.

She said parents should be more concerned if the fever is in a child younger than two, lasts for days or is accompanied by other symptoms.

Canada is experiencing a national shortage of children's fever medicine, but Cashin said it is still available — though she advises calling ahead. She said some pharmacies can also make the medication on site.

She said no medicine can totally cure a fever, and she also suggested other methods of preventing illness — like handwashing and wearing a mask.

According to Cashin, parents should also rely on their instincts.

"If it's an emergency, something urgent, a parent knows," she said.

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