The head of the Lions Gate Hospital says a spate of published complaints from patients — including a 2 a.m. release of an elderly woman — are overblown accounts of isolated incidents made worse by ongoing renovations.

But Mary Ackenhusen, the chief operating officer with responsibility for the North Vancouver hospital, said the hospital will hire more staff and implement a more efficient system of filling beds.

“We have great staff and they’re doing an extraordinary job under challenging circumstances,” said Ackenhusen, noting the emergency department is six months into an 18-month renovation.

“Renovations create the perception that things aren’t as smooth as they want them to be,” she said.

The congestion was worsened by an ongoing staff shortage and a highly contagious Norwalk virus outbreak that forced the closure of more beds, she said.

In recent letters to the North Shore News, patients and their friends or families wrote of long waits in the ER, dirty washrooms and furniture and described incidents in which an elderly woman without her purse was denied the use of a phone to call family to pick her up and one in which a teen screamed for half an hour until he was admitted.

“It’s easy to read [the letters] and jump to conclusions,” Ackenhusen said. “When we investigate these events, it’s not necessarily how they were perceived by staff. And we have lots of positive letters.”

The paper also printed letters recounting friendly, supportive staff and pleasant and positive experiences.

But one complaint recounted how an 87-year-old woman, who arrived by ambulance with stomach pains at 6 p.m., waited until 11 p.m. to be examined. It was midnight before she received any food or drink, despite being a diabetic and suffering low blood sugar, according to her friend, Pat Lund.

Lund said the woman was given tests before being told at 2 a.m. that she had been discharged and had to leave immediately. The elderly woman, wearing the slippers and housecoat she had arrived in, had to call her own cab, she said.

Doris Orr, 86, who went to emergency with a bad headache two weeks before her scheduled brain surgery, said she left after waiting in a cold and draughty waiting room from 10 a.m. until midnight.

She said she watched a teenage boy lie on the floor and scream “help me” for 30 minutes. “It’s complete chaos in there,” she said. “You can’t imagine it if you haven’t seen it.”

She said she made a complaint to a kind and understanding staffer, but the written response from an administrator angered her.

“He said everything is under control,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s ever been in an emergency room in his life.”

Ackenhusen wouldn’t discuss individual cases or say if any staff were disciplined but said meetings were held about staff concerns.

“You can say it’s an internal matter and the COO takes responsibility for the actions of the staff and has taken the necessary action to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Ackenhusen also said the hospital has made a “complaints and kudos” form in the ER more visible and posted job openings for more staff. Next month, it will adopt a more efficient way of handling patients that includes daily meetings with hospital staff and other involved staff, such as social workers, to make better use of the beds, she said. slazaruk@png.canwest.como

Susan Lazaruk on 9/27/2008