December 3, 2023

When it comes to experiences at the emergency room, Jenna Kedy knows what she’s talking about.

The 17-year-old has had a range of physical and mental conditions since childhood that send her to the IWK Health Centre’s ER almost every month.

“I’ve been a ‘frequent flier’ my whole life with physical and mental health,” she said in an interview Wednesday afternoon, with conditions including anorexia and severe depression.

So Jenna is a natural fit as a member of the IWK’s youth advisory council, particularly for the redevelopment of the IWK Health Centre’s emergency department, which is slated to open in 2025 on University Avenue in Halifax.

The $100-million facility will be double the size of the current emergency department at the hospital for women and children.

ER numbers spike

When the IWK opened its doors in 1992, it would handle 22,000 emergency visits in a year. That annual number is now about 34,000, IWK CEO Dr. Krista Jangaard told the Chronicle Herald last June.

While the waits at emergency departments for adults at sites such as the Halifax Infirmary can stretch to many hours and even days in overcrowded conditions, that’s not the case at the IWK, officials have said.

But there can be longer wait times in some circumstances including mental health admissions.

The new ER will have designated quiet spaces tailored to serve youth in mental health crises, which sounds good to regular visitors like Jenna.

“Right now in the current ER, you all kind of get thrown into the same pot, in the same area, so sometimes that can be really hard for someone that’s going in with a mental health crisis,” she said.

“It can be difficult for some people (particularly teenage patients) when there’s a lot of younger kids … especially when they’re in such a vulnerable position and also sometimes it can be really hard to be in such a noisy area.”

In the current ER, mental health patients are sometimes sent into a hospital room, “which sometimes that’s necessary because that’s the care that particular patient needs but also sometimes that can be really scary for people in that situation.”

Other times a patient is put into an isolated mental health room, which Jenna said can be like being held in a jail cell, although she’s quick to add IWK staff have always been kind and caring to her.

Rebecca deChamplain, the clinical lead for the emergency department redevelopment at the IWK Health Centre, stands in a mock-up room that's part of the design process for the new ER on Wednedsay, May 4, 2022. - John McPhee
Rebecca deChamplain, the clinical lead for the emergency department redevelopment at the IWK Health Centre, stands in a mock-up room that’s part of the design process for the new ER on Wednedsay, May 4, 2022. – John McPhee

Less clinical atmosphere

The clinical lead of the emergency redevelopment team, Rebecca deChamplain, said the current ER wasn’t built with mental health patients in mind, which has led to converting offices and using spaces that were not intended for patient care or interviews.

The new ER will include a purpose-built area for mental health treatment on its own within the emergency department, she said. 

“It’s designed to care for the mental health population and we know that their care needs are different than the general emergency department population, they tend to be older children and teenagers and we’re creating a space that’s more designed and geared for them. The space will be a more comfortable environment to be cared for and to have a mental health assessment.”

The mental health space will have more natural light as opposed to clinical lighting and comfort items will be provided geared toward teenagers and older children.

The ER expansion was announced by then-premier Stephen McNeil in 2018.

“We really do need a bigger more modern emergency department to meet the needs of the children and families in the Maritime provinces,” said deChamplain, who has worked as a registered nurse for about 20 years, most recently as clinical leader of operations in the current IWK emergency department.

“So this emergency department will be a lot bigger and it will also be a lot better in terms of the way we’re able to operate in our department, the way patients are able to move through the department, the types of equipment we’ll have and the way the department will be laid out will be a much more efficient department for providing care to our patients.”

The IWK Health Centre in Halifax opened for women and young people in 1992. - Contributed
The IWK Health Centre in Halifax opened for women and young people in 1992. – Contributed

Feedback sought

Besides drawing on her own experience as a front-line ER nurse, DeChamplain said the design plan thus far has been molded by feedback from other staff members as well as patient and family advisory groups of which Jenna is a part.

“Some of the things we’re planning to do different is having a lot of standardization in the department so that all the exam rooms are going to be exactly the same so that when you go into them, you’ll know exactly where the equipment is, they’ll all be stocked with the same things, all in the same position. It’s one less thing for your brain to have to remember when you’re going in to take care of a patient.”

The COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 coincided with her team’s early design work, which has resulted in more of an emphasis on infection control.

“So having more airborne isolation rooms, having a resuscitation room that can accommodate isolation patients that can potentially pose a risk to staff or other patients and families.”

The original plan would have seen ground broken in 2020 but pandemic-related and other delays have pushed that back to sometime soon this year.

The IWK invites feedback on the new facility from families who have experience with the current ER at [email protected]

“My ER experiences have been sometimes traumatic,” Jenna said, “but I definitely think that the IWK as a whole has definitely helped me through all of that, on the mental and physical health side. I’m very excited that they’re going to make a new one because it’s been a long time coming.”


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