After five gruelling days weathering British Columbia’s historic heat wave in a small one-bedroom apartment, 80-year-old Donna Stainsby needed a shower.
She lives with dementia, and the heat wrought havoc on her already limited ability to move and speak.
The heat wave peaked on Monday, June 28, the hottest day on record in Burnaby, where Stainsby lives with her son and full-time caregiver, Macdonald. He said both were weak and disoriented on Tuesday as the heat began to break.
But just 20 minutes before a nurse was due to arrive for her regular home support visit to help Donna shower and give Macdonald a needed break, Fraser Health called to cancel without explanation.
Macdonald knew he still had to cool his mother down and started to manoeuvre her into the tub for a shower. But his mother stopped being able to move with him, and the two, exhausted, collapsed into the tub.
“My own body was utterly wrecked, I’d had no break for eight days,” said Stainsby. “I was frazzled and coming apart and losing it.”
Stainsby was finally able to pull his mother out of the tub. He used the wall to pivot and bring them both down gently to the sopping wet floor. “I was gushing sweat from stress and heat.”
“By the time I figured out we were going to survive it, I started having a bit of a nervous breakdown,” he said. “If I had slipped, we both would have been severely hurt, probably permanently.”
Stainsby said his harrowing experience trying to keep his mother from dying of heat stroke shows the province did not do enough to support seniors through the fatal heat wave, even those like his mother who were known to the health-care system.
“Abandoning us on the hottest day ever in Vancouver’s history is disgusting,” he said. “We could have been one of those statistics instead.”
In the week of the heat wave, the BC Coroners Service reported almost 719 sudden deaths, triple the number in the same week last year.
About half of those deaths were in Fraser Health, which includes the Stainsby’s Burnaby neighbourhood near Edmonds Station. The health region saw almost six times as many deaths as in a normal week. The vast majority of these deaths were among seniors and unhoused people.
“My mother is the prime example of someone who was at risk. She’s 80, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has dementia. She would have just sat there and cooked,” Stainsby said.
“What would Fraser Health have done if I hadn’t answered their call to cancel or been passed out myself? Just not showed up?”
A replacement nurse did not visit until July 6, leaving Stainsby without any help caring for his mother for two weeks.
Premier John Horgan has defended his government’s response to the heat wave, pointing out that health authorities were connecting with patients at high risk and using social media to communicate where cooling centres were and offering heat wave tips such as drinking lots of water and taking cool showers.
“The public was acutely aware we had a heat problem, and we were trying to break through the noise to make sure they took steps to protect themselves,” Horgan said on the day of the Stainsbys’ near-miss.
In a statement to The Tyee, a Fraser Health spokesperson said a “small number” of home support visits were cancelled due to the heat. The health authority said nurses called to check in on all patients and ensure they had what they needed.
“We also called in extra staff to assist with calling our clients in the more affected areas and ensuring those at highest risk were prioritized,” read the statement.
But other than calling to cancel the Tuesday visit, Stainsby said he wasn’t contacted at all until the replacement nurse was scheduled the following week.
Stainsby said he followed Facebook groups and local discussion forums for tips, which was where he learned about putting cold compresses on his mother’s chest and the back of her neck to cool her off.
“It felt like the early days of the pandemic, just looking for any information I could get.”
For Stainsby, who has been his mother’s full-time caregiver since 2014, the last year has been “excruciating.”
He decided to cut his mother’s home support visits from almost daily to once per week as the pandemic began, hoping to limit her risk of exposure to the virus. That reduced the time he has for respite for himself, time used for recharging and running errands.
“When they mess with me and my mental health, they’re messing with my mother,” Stainsby said. “Two hours off a day is sometimes the difference between being able to care for her or not.”
A former climate activist, Stainsby said the grief associated with the heat wave — an expected outcome of the climate crisis — was intensified by feeling helpless to protect himself or his mother.
And recent changes to staffing made by the health authority haven’t made things easier, he said.
In May, Fraser Health informed Stainsby that the nurse who had seen his mother for nearly three years and become “like family” would be reassigned, without stating a reason.
Moving the familiar nurse eliminated any chance his mother could connect with and recognize her caregiver, trust that is essential to keeping her well.
When asked about why such a change would be made, Fraser Health said they occasionally “make adjustments to our scheduling processes in order to improve our service delivery and efficiency.”
Donna, who taught for 35 years and led adult education programs in B.C. before an aneurysm in 2005, still loves to play the piano and camp with her son. She plays the classics on their upright every night.
Stainsby decided to become her full-time caregiver in 2014. His father had passed away when he was young, and it felt right that he and his mother were together again.
But since Fraser Health removed their long-term nurse, he has begun the process of moving his mother to a long-term care home.
Stainsby doesn’t want to, but his mental health has suffered in the past year and a half and he doesn’t want it to impact his mother’s care and quality of life.
“When the pandemic started, all governments started talking about how protecting vulnerable seniors was the top priority,” he said. “I had felt invisible for years, and I thought we would finally get help.”
“But now my mother will never be able to recover from what has happened over the last year. Losing that routine has dropped her off the face of the Earth.”
Had he been adequately supported as a caregiver through the pandemic and the heat wave, Stainsby said he and many other caregivers could continue keeping their loved ones safe and at home.
That could look like more home-support hours, more frequent respite stays in long-term care to give caregivers breaks, or priority transportation to cooling centres in a heat wave.
“The trauma of the events isn’t as awful as the feeling of being left alone.”