Cowichan Lake residents had a sense of déjà vu last week as a sign on the Brookside Medical Clinic’s door said doctors were leaving the area.
The notice informed patients that Dr. Gary Toth would be finished March 31, and that Dr. Pedro Jara Villaroel and Dr. Clara Iturra would be moving to Vancouver as of Aug. 31. No explanations were given.
The notice concluded with the words, “We are currently recruiting new family physicians for the practice in hopes of replacement.”
In 2012, a similar notice informed shocked patients that the community’s last doctor would be moving his practice to Duncan. That move left area residents reeling but a determined effort that drew in Lake Cowichan town council, Island Health, concerned people from all around the Lake, health professionals, and experts from several groups and agencies led to the “Choose Cowichan Lake” campaign.
That concerted effort brought two clinics, including a walk-in service, along with a primary health care team to the area, confounding those who claimed that small communities could not attract doctors.
However, as time passed, there were warnings that there could be problems ahead. As early as April, 2014, the phrase “use it or lose it” began to be heard and now patients of Drs. Toth, Villaroel and Iturra find themselves scrambling for the phone hoping to sign on elsewhere.
The case is different now, however, according to several people who were involved last time.
Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest reminded everyone last week, “The case is not quite as dire as 2012. We still have doctors left in the Lakeside Clinic, up by the pharmacy by Saywell Park, they still have doctors there. But it is still concerning.”
Forrest himself is one of those who will be losing his GP. He transferred back when the Brookside Clinic re-opened. “I have Pedro. He’s terrific, very thorough. And he’s here till August so hopefully they can find replacements for them,” he said.
Asked if the Town of Lake Cowichan was likely to be involved in a doctor search again, Forrest said, “I don’t know. I only heard about this last night. Nobody has talked officially to me about it. It definitely is concerning but, hopefully, between now and August a couple of doctors will say: ‘That looks like a pretty good place to go practice at.’”
Forrest said he had no details about the changes, but added, “You certainly can’t blame people for trying to take advantage of opportunities when they are there for them. It’s not the best way to start off a new year but I’m hopeful.”
Dr. Valerie Nicholl of the Division of Family Practice is also holding out hope for Cowichan Lake residents who are thinking about rushing out to try to line up a new doctor.
“They don’t need to find one tomorrow,” she said.
She admitted that people are going to have to consider their options because family physicians are not easy to find.
However “in 2014 we were able to say everyone had a family doctor who wanted one”. But, even though that was a success worth celebrating, “it’s not a one and done,” she continued, pointing out that there are many variables: more people moving to the area, or moving around the Island, doctors retiring or having to reconsider their time commitments for a variety of reasons.
All of these could contribute to people again finding themselves without a family GP.
But, she also reminded people, there will also be one clinic left in Lake Cowichan that continues to operate.
In addition, there is what is called Priority Care: an enhancement to the team of multidisciplinary professionals that are already serving Cowichan Lake.
These enhancements include home and community care and funding has already been allocated, Nicholl said.
In addition, Nicholl said that she’s confident the three doctors themselves will put their best efforts into trying to find replacements and, with the reputation the people of Cowichan Lake gained during their last campaign to secure doctors for the area, there is a lot to be optimistic about.
“We’re on it. We’ll rally the troops if we have to. Lake Cowichan showed last time that they are super hosts. It’s also different from 2013. A lot of people have found a GP; there are not as many unattached patients out there,” she said.
Lake Cowichan resident Laurie Johnson, heavily involved in the Choose Cowichan Lake campaign of 2012/13, remembers the way the communities of the area pulled together.
“I’m just hopeful things will work out well for our community as it did last time when we faced this challenge,” she said.
Like the others, Johnson also said, “Something that’s important to remember is that in 2013, we had no one, but today we’ll still have one active office that includes a walk-in. And we have a really good primary health care centre that I encourage people to use. Myself, I’ve used it with my family and it’s amazing.”
While she has not yet talked to her own doctor, Dr. Toth, about the changes, Johnson said she did “get out of bed [on Jan. 5] and make 32 phone calls about it, trying to find a doctor for myself. My closest are getting on a waiting list in October for a meet and greet and a six month waiting list for a different doctor. I phoned Chemainus, Ladysmith, Mill Bay. I phoned the whole Cowichan Valley.”
Johnson is one of those who had to find a doctor in Duncan when the clinic closed in Lake Cowichan in 2013. She did so but came back when Lake Cowichan got doctors back in town.
“A lot of us did come back, and hopefully we can get someone in the interim. I’m praying someone will come in and take it over,” she said, expressing concern for people who have children or ongoing health problems.