Emergency rooms prepare for Homecoming

Kingston General Hospital estimates $25,000 in extra staffing costs

Dr. Gord Jones
Dr. Gord Jones

As people pour into Kingston for 2008 Homecoming weekend, the emergency departments at Kingston General and Hotel Dieu Hospitals are preparing for a chaotic weekend.

Mike MacDonald, program manager for the emergency department at Kingston General Hospital, said Homecoming weekend has produced a predictable influx of people into the emergency room for alcohol-related illnesses.

“It starts around nine or 10 and lasts until about three in the morning, the influx,” he said. “You can start to see it taper off about three or so.” During the 2005 Homecoming weekend, visits to the KGH emergency room for people ages 17 to 25 peaked at 52 people for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the highest influx of patients on record since a hospital study started recording the numbers in 2002.

Although the numbers have shrunk since 2005, visits to the KGH emergency room during Homecoming weekend have been on the rise for people between the ages of 17 to 25 for alcohol-related illness since 2003. For the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights of Homecoming weekends, the emergency room at Kingston General Hospital saw 22 cases in 2002, 17 in 2003, 37 in 2004, 44 in 2006 and 51 in 2007.

“We have noticed that it’s really mounting up over a year or two years, and then we hit the year with all the glass. The year you went to the plastic cups, that was a good thing,” MacDonald said. “The year that we really we noticed it was a huge impact was [2005], the year of the glass and the beer bottles being smashed. Along with the intoxicated student coming in, we had more coming in with glass-type injuries.”

To cope with the now-anticipated influx of patients coming to the emergency room during Homecoming weekend, MacDonald said extra staff are put on duty to ensure patients are processed as quickly as possible.

“We had to put a number of extra nurses on, so there’s more staff overall. There’s more security and there’s an extra EMS crew to prevent offload delays,” he said. “The emergency department is under a fair bit of stress as it is. They’re busy, and then you add a night where we can now predict a huge influx of people who come in at a certain time.”

In addition to the high volume of alcohol-related cases, MacDonald said emergency room staff still have to deal with day-to-day cases that would happen on any given night.

“You still have the car accidents, you still have the heart attacks, we still have waiting rooms that have a number of people waiting to get in,” he said. “That’s all there.”

MacDonald said the extra staff is paid overtime for their work, an extra cost that isn’t accounted for in the hospital’s operating budget.

“That’s how I did it last year, but the resources are scarce this year because we have a shortage of all healthcare professionals,” he said. “It will cost in the neighbourhood of $25,000. That’s every year, and there’s no way to recover that money, but it needs to be done.”

Regardless of the extra cost, MacDonald said additional emergency room staff are necessary in case of unforeseen accidents in Kingston and the surrounding area.

“We don’t want a tragedy to happen. When you see the films of some of these things, such as a lot people crowded on a balcony, I ask the question, ‘What happens if that balcony goes? What happens if there are 40 people on that balcony?’” he said. “We need to be able to handle what happens if there’s something like a major car accident on the 401 in addition to Homecoming.”

Dr. Gord Jones, head of emergency medicine for Queen’s University and KGH and Hotel Dieu, said hospitalization for alcohol-related illness has been a growing problem for the emergency rooms at KGH and Hotel Dieu over the past few years.

“We were fairly well prepared for Homecoming last year in terms of the number of unconscious drunk students that came in. After that, we had unexpected problems,” he said, citing Frosh Week, formals, and other student gatherings as causes for high volume in the emergency room. “We’ve noticed a change in beahviour over the last few years, and I’m wondering if it’s people being younger in first year than they used to be, having less experience with alcohol, or different behaviours that people have, thinking it’s alright to drink until you’re unconscious.”

Jones said although cases of Rohypnol and other date rape drugs have been reported, the cases have been rare and far apart, and the over-consumption of alcohol remains the number one cause of concern for the safety of students.

“People forget that the number one date rape drug is alcohol,” he said. “When women or men drink to the point where they don’t have any control of their decision making, that’s when these things happen.”

Jones said he doesn’t use a preachy approach when encouraging people to consume alcohol safely.

“I’m not going to tell people don’t drink if you’re underage, I’m going to tell people to be careful and don’t drink to the point where you’re going to be unable to manage yorself and don’t drink to the point where you might be unconscious,” he said. “Go slowly, and watch how you feel, don’t drink a lot at a time, watch what you drink.”

For most people admitted to the emergency room for alcohol-related illness, Jones said, the learning experience is enough.

“Most people wake up within three or four hours, are embarrassed and leave the department with vomit all over their clothes,” he said. “We don’t tend to lecture people too much, we do make sure that when people go home they’re safe to go home and they have a reliable way home and they have somebody to escort them home.”

But, Jones said, some people aren’t so lucky.

“Once in a blue moon, somebody dies because they got so drunk, they were left unattended somewhere and they throw up, but they were on their backs and they breathed their vomit in and choked,” he said. “It’s been a few years since that’s happened, and I’m really surprised that hasn’t happened lately given the change in drinking behavior that we’ve seen. It’s a matter of time before some student dies of breathing in his own vomit. It’s a definite possibility and it happens.”

When recounting the previous night’s activities, Jones said the perception of the over-consumption of alcohol can be skewed into a form of glorification, something he thinks needs to change.

“There’s the attitude among a lot of people that ‘man, you were drunk last night’ is something commendable. You may be funny to your friends, but everyone else thinks you’re an idiot,” he said. “All the bad things that can happen to you as a student, the things you’ll regret late in your life, I bet all of them happen when you’ve gone past that point of being intoxicated. My advice to people is be careful and have fun, but watch what you’re doing.”

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