The Elk Valley Hospital in Fernie is soon to lose its only general surgeon, Dr. Colm Nally, due to retirement.
This has been on the horizon for six years. Another surgeon is projected to arrive in July of 2018, but until then, Dr. Mike Stuckey and Dr. Deena Case (husband and wife) will be left alone in the surgery room when Dr. Nally retires on May 31, 2017.
To date, Dr. Nally has been in Fernie, serving in a solo general surgery practice for 30 years.
“It’s an incredible feat, what he has accomplished,” said Elk Valley Hospital gastroenterologist, Tara Chalmers-Nixon speaking on behalf of physicians at the Elk Valley Hospital.
Stuckey and Case applied to fill the position when it was posted in 2010. They arrived in 2013, but the ad for a general surgeon remained open. This is because Stuckey and Case are not general surgeons, as Dr. Nally is. They lack an expanded scope of surgical practice, and are therefore qualified as GP Obstetrician C-sectionists.
At the May 8 regular council meeting, Mayor Mary Giuliano expressed her concern with this matter, and encouraged the public to stand up for their healthcare and put the pressure on Interior Health (IH) to bring in a surgeon before July of next year.
Despite the ad being out for almost seven years, the hospital has received very few applications for a general surgeon.
A general surgeon is someone who has completed medical school, as well as at least a five-year residency. These five-year residency positions are almost always done in a big city. When a surgeon has completed this, they most often stay in big cities. Those people are Royal-College certified and become fellows with the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada.
Prince Albert is training one or two family doctors with enhanced surgical skills a year, who look for a rural place to settle down. This is the only place in Canada offering this kind of training.
For the next year, several types of surgeries will be reverted to Cranbrook. If a patient comes in with neurotrauma, they will be transported to Foothills Hospital in Calgary to be treated by a neurosurgeon. If a patient comes in with a complicated treatment case, but could be managed by general surgery or orthopaedic surgery, they will be transferred to Cranbrook.
“We have a very close relationship with Cranbrook,” said Dr. Chalmers-Nixon.
Outside of treatment, part of the duties of a general surgeon come in the form of managing the emergency room.
In 2002, Interior Health deemed the Elk Valley Hospital as a day-surgery hospital, meaning you can have a defined list of surgeries, as long as you are in and out within the same day.
This means that many surgeries such as c-sections, appendectomies, hernia repairs, varicose vein surgery, carpal tunnel and trigger finger can all still be performed at the Elk Valley Hospital. These tasks tend to suit the needs of the general public in and around Fernie, however, anything more complicated than this must be taken to Cranbrook for the most part. For people living in Jaffray or Elkford, this can pose an issue.
The catchment area of the Elk Valley Hospital is nearly 17,000 people.
“We’re in a pickle,” said Dr. Chalmers-Nixon.
Even though another surgeon is on their way for July of 2018, the Elk Valley Hospital’s hope is to hire a surgeon in the immediate future. As well, there are lots of opportunities for outreach surgeons to come to Fernie and serve everyone in the Elk Valley.
“We have Highway 3, we have the ski hill, we have the mountain bike trails. It’s a high-volume trauma hospital, and having somebody with enhanced surgical skills or a general surgeon available to help in the emergency room when that kind of trauma comes in, (is) invaluable,” said Dr. Chalmers-Nixon.
Several rumours have been circulating in the area, and the Elk Valley Hospital would like to clarify that it is not shutting down. The emergency room is open 24/7. The operating room is not closing down.
However, several closures for the operating room have been initiated by IH, but this is not in any way related to Dr. Nally’s retirement.
IH has enforced a mandate to impose five-weeks-a-year of operating room (OR) closure. This year, there will be a four-week period during the summer when the operating room will be closed. Then, every pregnant woman will be transferred to either Cranbrook or Calgary, regardless of whether or not a c-section is needed.
IH has been imposing 5-week-a-year closures since 2002. They initiated these closures to give physicians time off during the slower, summer months. This operating room closure will take place from July 6 to August 8, but everything else at the hospital will be business-as-usual.
“The future of the Fernie Hospital is not to have five weeks of closure,” said Dr. Chalmers-Nixon. “Our future, what the general medical staff want, is 24/7 operating room ability. Just like the emergency room is open 24 hours a day, we want the operating room to be available 24 hours a day, so that no woman has to travel for a c-section.”
“For the average person who wants to have a baby, they should be able to have a baby in their hometown,” she added. “And the evidence supports that. It saves money and it saves lives.”
The passionate, local group of doctors at the Elk Valley Hospital (19 physicians, 13 full time) have recently formed their own medical staff association with help from Doctors of BC Funding. With their own project manager, they are working to keep the hospital open at the same capacity, if not expanded from where it is now.