Denied home care, former Paralympian speaks out

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After long hospital stay, Sally Thomas told no workers available to provide essential home care

Sally Thomas, left, says she depends on Carefor's personal support workers to live a safe and active life. She and her mother, Sandra MacDonald, say she's had to fight every day to receive those services since being discharged from hospital last Tuesday.

After spending 100 days in hospital, former Paralympian Sally Thomas just wanted to go home and get on with her life. Instead, the Ottawa woman says she’s had to fight tooth and nail just to receive the essential care she needs.

“To be at home but still kind of incarcerated and stuck, because people are not doing their job, is even more frustrating than being in the hospital,” she said.

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Thomas was diagnosed at birth with spina bifida, a condition in which the spine does not fully develop while in the womb.

An avid athlete despite her condition, Thomas eventually took up powerlifting, setting a Canadian record and representing the country at both the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games.

For eight years, Thomas has been receiving support from Carefor, an Ottawa-based agency that provides home care across eastern Ontario. Thomas said she depends entirely on Carefor’s workers to live a safe and active life.

‘It’s so dehumanizing’

With friends to see and community meetings to attend, Thomas was anxious to get her life back after spending three months in hospital.

The trouble began last Tuesday, when she finally returned home.

Thomas said Carefor was unaware she required care that evening. While the agency did send a personal care worker after she phoned, Thomas had to call every day thereafter to make sure a worker was coming.

Sally Thomas

Sally Thomas, 48, says the home-care system suffers from staff shortages and poor communication, with clients like her feeling the impact. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

The problem came to a head Friday night when Carefor told Thomas no one was available to provide her care.

“They just simply said, ‘Well, we don’t have anybody, so it’s not happening tonight,'” Thomas said, recalling that evening’s phone call. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean it’s not happening?’ I said, ‘I need care.'”

Thomas later called on a friend for help that night. Her 70-year-old mother, Sandra MacDonald, packed her bags the next morning and made the three-hour drive to Ottawa from Stirling, Ont.

“It’s so dehumanizing,” MacDonald said. “Sally’s a very proud, independent, accomplished woman. For her just to be left, so that she can’t get the care that lets her go out and have her life, is just inexcusable.”

Sandra MacDonald

Sandra MacDonald, 70, says it’s “inexcusable” that her daughter was denied the home care she needs. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Shortage of skilled staff

Carefor CEO Steve Perry could not definitively answer why Thomas did not receive care Friday night, but said it’s not unusual for his agency to face staff shortages.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a regular occurrence as much as it’s not uncommon for it to happen,” he said. “While we strive to match every single client visit with a worker, it is not always possible.”

‘While agencies such as ours strive to meet 100 per cent of the demand for services, it’s not always possible.’
– Steve Perry, Carefor CEO

Serving over 5,000 clients, Carefor employs 490 personal support workers, including 50 hires recently added to the company’s roster in the last two months.

Perry said his agency is seeing a growing number of clients with complex medical needs, along with a province-wide shortage of skilled workers able to respond to those needs.

“As an agency, we recognize those pressures that are on the system, and [we]are working really hard to do our part to support clients,” he said. “While agencies such as ours strive to meet 100 per cent of the demand for services, it’s not always possible.”

Following CBC’s inquiry into her care, Thomas said Carefor has scheduled appointments with her on an ongoing basis.

Still, her mother worries about others who might not receive the care they need, recalling some of her daughter’s elderly roommates at the hospital.

“What happens to them when they’re discharged and there’s no one to call for help?” she asked. “This is just one person, but how many don’t have family to call?”

It’s that same concern that pushed Thomas to speak up for the care she’s entitled to receive.

“People with disabilities deserve their freedoms as well as their ability to be adults and people in the community,” she said. “Without that help, that’s not possible.”

Sally Thomas and Sandra MacDonald

Thomas and her mother review paperwork confirming that she was to start receiving home care last Tuesday. Thomas says Carefor, the agency charged with providing her services, was unaware she had returned home and needed care. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

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