Katherine Walters of Bell Island has taken to posting videos on Facebook to express her displeasure with a policy that requires “medically fragile passengers” to leave their vehicles for the 20-minute ferry ride across the Tickle between the Conception Bay island and Portugal Cove.
Walters underwent double-bypass surgery about a month ago and recently was back in hospital after suffering a pulmonary embolism (blockage of a major blood vessel in the lung, usually by a blood clot). After being discharged from hospital, and waiting in the lineup to board the ferry at Portugal Cove to head home to Bell Island, she made a video expressing her anxiety of having to get out of her car in her weakened physical condition and compromised immune system.
Walters said she attempted to get an ambulance to take her home — patients remain in the ambulance while on the ferry — but it was deemed she didn’t need one.
“When my car rolls onto the boat now, I’m expected to get out of my car, make my way to the elevator, and go up to the passenger lounge,” Walters says in the video, with sometimes laboured breathing.
She said part of the reason for sharing the video is because there are “a lot more like me on Bell Island, medically fragile people going back and forth. We are expected to adhere to the same sets of rules as able-bodied people. We go up and sit in dirty lounges, touch surfaces full of germs because of kids running around, no hand sanitizers available, no crew members assigned to where we are, no designated area just for us.
“The last thing I, or other ill people, need is to catch the influenza.”
Social media is often used by Bell Island residents upset with the policy that passengers have to leave their vehicles for the 20-minute crossing, something they never had to do until the policy was enforced by the provincial government after two new ferries — the MV Legionnaire and the MV Veteran — came into the provincial ferry service last year.
The policy is provincewide, not just on the Bell Island run.
The Department of Transportation and Works has stated that an independent risk assessment conducted by Lloyds Registry recommended the department continue to require ferry passengers to vacate their vehicles while travelling on the ferries. The assessment concluded there are safety risks associated with passengers staying in their vehicles during trips, such as scenarios involving vehicle fires and power failures, and emergencies requiring passengers to evacuate the vessel.
Most Bell Islanders are opposed to the new policy.
The town council has complained to the government, and the Bell Island Ferry Users Committee has fired off emails to everyone from the provincial and federal human rights commissions to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to try to get the policy changed.
The committee says the policy most negatively affects the elderly and those with disabilities and medical conditions.
“My question to everybody is, if this was a rule change designed to make things safer, somebody explain to me how I’m safer with all this extra beating around and exposure to germs than staying in my own car,” Walters said.
“It’s a 20-minute crossing on an open boat deck. I don’t understand what the problem is. If this has to do with insurance for the vessels, since when is it ethical to download the risk associated with this sort of measure to the most medically fragile passengers. There is something seriously wrong with this picture and I for one am fed up with it. I will be doing one of these videos every time I cross. It’s time for people who make these decisions to have to come and face people like me who are back and forth four or five times a week.”
Walters says she has written to Department of Transportation and Works Minister Steve Crocker about the ferry policy, but has not yet received a response.
In July The Telegram published a story about another Bell Island woman, Mandy Crane, who slipped and hit her head while on the Bell Island ferry. Crane, who suffers from cerebral palsy, a disease that severely affects body movement and posture, was fortunate in that her injuries weren’t deemed to be serious when she was examined at hospital following the incident.
"Why should people have to leave their vehicles if the doctor says she is susceptible to falls?" her mother, Kay Crane, asked at the time. "She already has a note from her family doctor — that we've had for a long time — that says that because she has cerebral palsy she is very susceptible to slip-and-fall accidents.”
Still, unless in an ambulance, passengers have to leave their vehicles while on the ferry.
Walters said it is unfair that medically fragile people are expected to adhere to the same rules as able-bodied ferry passengers, regardless of how it taxes them or puts them at additional risk. She said she is hoping to draw attention to the issue and put some pressure on the government to make changes.
She said the situation becomes even more grave when the weather turns colder and slush freezes on the decks of the ferries.
In her letter to Crocker, she offers recommendations to help protect medically fragile and disabled people should the policy of vacated vehicles remain in place.
• Assign one crew member to remain with the medical passengers in the lower lounge on the Flanders and in a designated seating area on the Legionnaire;
• In between crossings clean the touch surfaces in those designated areas with a hospital-grade disinfectant to reduce the likelihood of the spread of disease;
• Make hand sanitizer stations easily accessible and keep them stocked;
• Keep the area outside elevators clear of obstacles;
• Upgrade available bathroom facilities to enable a wheelchair to enter safely, and install comfort-height toilet seat and grab bars;
• Have masks available for those who might need them;
• Install signage requiring able-bodied passengers to stay out of the areas designated for medically fragile passengers.