HISTORIC ST. MARYS: Fighting to Keep Our Hospital

  • History   Wednesday, November 24, 2021   Mary Smith

By Mary Smith
The St. Marys Healthcare Foundation has recently launched a two-year hospital rebuild campaign. The goal is to raise $3,000,000 from the community towards a $6,000,000 project to upgrade many areas within St. Marys Memorial Hospital to improve patient care. These include mechanical patient lifts, wheelchair accessible washrooms, new staff sanitation stations and much more. (Details are on the Foundation’s website: stmaryshealthcare.foundation/two-year-hospital-rebuild-campaign/) This ambitious initiative would have been hard to imagine in the autumn of 1996. Exactly 25 years ago, St. Marys seemed to be dangerously close to losing the hospital altogether. Many Independent readers will remember this situation very well. But for those who are younger or who are new to the community, this column recalls a dramatic period in our recent history.
In the final years of the 20th century, the costs of Canada’s publicly funded health care were rising at an alarming rate. In Ontario, various provincial governments, regardless of political affiliation, all sought ways to curb these costs. But it wasn’t until Mike Harris was premier of Ontario, from 1995 to 2002, elected on promises to reduce the deficit, that serious cuts to services were implemented. Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution” targeted education and all social services. The Ministry of Health made it clear that restructuring Ontario’s healthcare system was an inevitable part of the process. Almost immediately, several large, old and inefficient city hospitals were slated for closure. What could small, rural hospitals expect?
In the summer of 1996, the Huron Perth District Health Council created a committee of volunteers representing the municipalities within the two counties. Its official title was “Huron Perth Hospitals and Related Health Services Task Force.” With input from a professional consulting company and the authorization of the Ministry of Health, this group’s mandate was to study and review the eight hospitals in the two counties and report its findings and recommendations by January 31, 1997. At first, few St. Marys residents realized how ominous the task force’s review might be. Dr. Fred Jewson, hospital chief of staff, issued the first alarm, published in a Journal Argus front page story, September 18, 1996. “I don’t think at the end of the study there will be eight hospitals supported by the Ministry of Health. There’s no longer any guarantee there will always be a St. Marys Memorial Hospital.”
People began to pay attention and to realize just how important the hospital was to the community. Joan Grenda, a teacher at Central School, had her Grade Two class draw pictures, explaining why the hospital was needed. When they posed for the photograph, reproduced for this week’s column, they looked both serious and anxious as they held up the banner with their pictures. They wondered, for example, what would happen to people who got hurt but couldn’t reach their own doctor! They were especially worried about old people. “The children understand this issue so well,” Mrs. Grenda said. “This is very real stuff to them.” In response to the warnings, letters to the editor began to appear in the Journal Argus, all supporting the hospital and its vital services.
But John O’Drowsky, a highly respected, retired history teacher from St. Marys District Collegiate and a former hospital board member, felt that an organized approach was needed to address the threat. He presented his suggestions to a meeting of the hospital board and members voted to endorse and support his recommendations. There was a public invitation issued through the Journal Argus for community members to help form and implement a “Save Our Hospital” action plan. A letter-writing campaign began, directed to Premier Harris, the Minister of Health, the MPPs for Perth and Huron ridings, and the members of the task force. Many of these letters were also sent to the Journal Argus for publication.
The newspaper itself stepped up, proving the value of a local, small-town publication. Editor Laura Payton interviewed the chair of the task force, Janet Hook, and the chief executive officer of the District Health Council, Fraser Bell, and published the Q & A in the October 9 issue. Both Hook and Bell were emphatic that area residents would have the opportunity to express their opinions on the restructuring process. There would be focus groups, telephone surveys and a questionnaire available to all to fill out. Finally, on December 5, a public forum would be held at the community centre for feedback on the restructuring options. But, further questioning revealed that all these methods would be tightly controlled. Payton suggested that St. Marys residents would prefer an open, town-hall style meeting allowing presentations from the audience. The task force officials dismissed this idea as non-productive. “Will that give us information back that we can actually use? You’re likely to get this emotional stuff and how do you use that to a constructive end?”
The community action group did not agree. They believed that local and area residents deserved to know as much as possible about services currently offered at St. Marys Memorial Hospital and to address the possible withdrawal of these services. Board members and medical staff gave a series of public information meetings in town and in all the adjacent townships where users of the hospital lived. All these locations were filled to capacity. The largest, held at the community centre, had 700 people in attendance. The main speaker was Dr. Peter Johnston who described a typical night in the emergency room, emphasizing its importance in a small town. The task force did not send representatives to these public meetings, calling community action groups “not helpful.”
In the meantime, the task force members met to review the “useable” data collected from their approved sources and to consider several “potential service delivery models” for Huron Perth communities. These meetings were closed, although several press releases were issued containing very general information. On November 22, the task force released its three options for hospital restructuring. In all three options, Stratford General, the largest hospital in the largest municipality, was the secondary referral hospital for all key services in Perth County. The hospital in Goderich would be expanded to offer enhanced services in Huron County. Seaforth and either Listowel or Wingham, would retain some acute and chronic patient beds. None of the three options provided any in-patient beds in Clinton, Exeter or St. Marys. These hospitals would be “Primary Care Centres,” essentially group practice clinics offering very limited services to their communities.
The newspaper headline was blunt:”No Beds for St. Marys in Task Force Scenarios.” Reaction ranged from profound disappointment to outrage. Hospital CEO Terry Fadelle said: “In each of the three options, services are enhanced in some communities at the expense of others – St. Marys coming out on the losing end in every case.” But, John O’Drowsky maintained, “At least the community now knows what it’s up against.” He urged people not to lose faith, to continue to be positive. Another opportunity for input would be the open house on December 5 at the community centre, scheduled for the task force to receive input on its three options. “The big thing right now is to get people to attend. We need big numbers! We’re down but not out!”
(To be continued next week.)