Winnipeg amputations and frostbite reached records last winter

Winnipeg amputations and frostbite reached records last winter

Similar trend in Winnipeg seen in other parts of Canada suggests more diagnoses and amputations due to frostbite in 2021-22.

Cold weather in Winnipeg

Frostbite can be treated fairly easily with no long-term effects, but it can also lead to serious injury, including permanent numbness or tingling, joint stiffness, or muscle weakness. In extreme cases, it can lead to amputation, as was the case 19 times in Winnipeg last year, data from Shared Health suggests. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The number of patients in Winnipeg hospitals with frostbite has reached record levels in recent years.

In 2021-22, there were 90 frostbite diagnoses and 19 amputations, according to data from Shared Health.

“While we cannot provide a breakdown on the individual circumstances of each patient, it is generally accepted that severe weather disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, including those experiencing homelessness,” a spokesperson for Shared Health, which co-ordinates health service delivery in Manitoba, said in a statement on Monday.

The CEO of Siloam Mission said the recent numbers underline requirements for more supports to help those living unsheltered avoid injuries from the cold.

“It really speaks to the need for continued warming centres, it speaks to the need for warm clothes for folks,” said Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud. “This human suffering is preventable and we need to do more as the city to make that real.”

Frostbite diagnoses and amputations in Winnipeg from 2011-2022

Data from adult and pediatric health-care facilities in Winnipeg
Chart: Bryce Hoye/CBC Source: Shared Health CBC News

The winter of 2021-22 brought freeze to Winnipeg and dumped so much snow that the city burned through its 2022 snow-clearing budget in about two months.

Every winter, End Homelessness Winnipeg releases its Winter Weather Response Plan, which contains a list of information and resources to help organizations and those experiencing homelessness anticipate certain cold-weather risk factors and avoid harm.

Blaikie Whitecloud said on a visit to one of Siloam’s overnight shelters over the holidays, she had to provide first aid to an individual who was showing signs of frostbite on his hands.

“The amount of pain that he was in from the frostbite was disruptive with his sleep, but also the medical care that we could provide as first aid we knew wasn’t enough, so trying to encourage him to access hospitals,” she said.

“His skin was red and rashy, layers of skin had actually become hard and waxy and started to peel off. And so it really depends on the severity and the condition.”

Freezing cold weather swept through the city in December forced 1JustCity to expand their hours at its warming shelter in Osborne Village. A few days earlier, outreach workers found an unresponsive woman on the floor of a Winnipeg Transit shelter, who was later pronounced dead.

Bus shelter at corner of Tache Avenue and Goulet Street in Winnipeg

The woman was found inside this bus shelter at corner of Tache Avenue and Goulet Street in Winnipeg’s St. Boniface neighbourhood on Dec. 5, 2022. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The city and St. Boniface Street Links reopened a warming centre at 604 St. Mary’s Rd., a municipal building in St. Boniface, right before the holidays, when overnight temperatures were in the –26 C range.

One way Siloam Mission responds to periods of acute cold is by not closing down for the two-hour period in the afternoon they typically do for cleaning, said Blaikie Whitecloud.

But she said an accommodation like that only goes so far. For some low-income Winnipeggers who do have a place to stay, but have to exit in periods of extreme winter weather to get food, walking long distances could present a frostbite hazard, she said.

“There we could look at things like free public transit for people that are [on] unemployment income assistance or other ways to ensure that people can go get their basic needs met without having to brave the cold,” said Blaikie Whitecloud.

“I think like one of the biggest things around frostbite, around death due to freezing, around people living in bus shelters, around all of these things is that the ultimate solution is that people need to have an adequate and safe housing solution.”

Source: CBC News – Bryce Hoye

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