Frontline workers see more amputations in Edmonton’s homeless community

An emergency doctor is among frontline workers calling for more space in shelters and data collection after seeing more amputations in Edmonton’s homeless community.

Dr. Sandy Dong, who has been practicing medicine in Edmonton for two decades, says he has never seen more amputations due to frostbite than last year.

“The vast majority was because they were homeless and didn’t have access to a warm place,” Dong said.

He said he hopes to see better decisions this year “because we have a situation where the result and the injury are avoidable”.

In an email, Alberta Health Services said it does not track amputations due to frostbite and has no further information.

The health department also does not track deaths or causes of death among Edmontonians living without shelter.

Dong said an official tally of death and amputation rates should be kept to better understand the extent of the problem.

The Alberta government announced last month that it would spend an additional $63 million over two years to reduce homelessness across the province.

Of the 450 additional shelter spaces funded by the province, 260 spaces at Hope Mission and the Herb Jamieson Center are already open.

Forty additional overnight spaces are scheduled to open Nov. 23 at Mustard Seed Trinity Lutheran Church.

Mission Hope is working to open at least 150 more places at an off-site location near Argyll Road and 77th Street by mid-December.

With an estimated 2,700 Edmontonians now living homeless, the Edmonton Housing and Homelessness Coalition says at least 1,550 additional shelter spaces are needed.

Dong said investing in shelter and housing is relatively inexpensive compared to the acute care, treatment, surgeries and rehabilitation required.

Amputees are often sent back to homelessness where healing and movement are even more difficult, and many are no longer able to work.

“Now they don’t have any income and they go back into the cycle of poverty,” Dong said.

“Four Walls and a Roof”

While distributing supplies during her regular patrols, Judith Gale, local chapter leader of the Bear Clan Patrol outreach group, said she was seeing more and more people who had lost their fingers and toes due to the ‘exposure.

Gale recalled some of those harrowing circumstances: a double amputee stuck in a pile of snow as he tried to cross the street in a wheelchair; a homeless refugee who escaped the war in Somalia only to lose all his fingers on the streets of Edmonton.

“It’s a life sentence,” Gale said. “It’s a life sentence of no longer being able to work with your hands, of not being able to walk side by side with your peers and society. It’s a life sentence and it could be avoided so easily just by four walls and a roof.”

Judith Gale, leader of Bear Clan Patrol Beaver Hills House Edmonton, said amputation is an easily avoidable life sentence. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

Elliott Tanti, senior manager at Boyle Street Community Services, said the data collection would show whether the rate of amputations has increased or whether the number has increased because more people are homeless.

He noted that at the start of the pandemic, daily updates were provided so that appropriate health decisions could be made.

“So how as a society, how as an agency, how as a health care provider, can we make effective public health decisions if we don’t have effective information, what Is it death or amputations?”


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