Creating a community miracle

by Bruce Mason

• For many years, Gabriola Island – the most northern Southern Gulf Island – has been known as “Petroglyph Island” or “Isle of the Arts” because of its ubiquitous, ancient stone carvings and one of the highest per capita concentrations of artists in Canada.

Now, Gabriola Island has a new major attraction: a unique, multimillion-dollar community health centre situated on four acres of landscaped and forested land. Residents who built the impressive 9,000-square-foot facility themselves have dubbed it “The Miracle on Church Street.” The Gabriola Community Health Centre is front and centre, with curious visitors arriving at the site every day, including delegations from other communities, with the question “How did they do it?” uppermost in their minds.

Part of the miracle includes no ‘handouts.’ Government contributed less than 10 percent to the project and no taxes were raised. Instead, Gabriola’s population of 4,000 rallied by taking matters into their own hands, collecting $1.5 million and an equal amount of in-kind donations and volunteer labour. And when a site was donated, they assembled an army of 150 people.

By revitalizing the spirit of traditional barn and church-raising with 21st century resources and realities, everyone involved now insist similar miracles are within the reach of others, including legacy projects such as theatres, libraries, parks and rinks.

“The Centre represents the best in us, with important lessons for others,” says volunteer coordinator John Campbell. “We don’t necessarily need and should not rely on government. We can and must do it ourselves. And when a community makes that decision, everything changes.”

Locals flock to the site to track how the dream of locally owned and operated community health care is unfolding and evolving. The remarkable story of self-reliance and responsibility is shared with off-island family and friends, as they tour the innovative two-storey structure, complete with a state-of-the art Helipad.

The stream of visitors includes patients, of course. The building is designed to facilitate visionary, multi-disciplinary, multi-service, patient-centred treatment, integrating primary/urgent health care and overall well being under one roof. Two doctors practising in the centre have long waiting lists. A lower level is being leased to related health and well-being services and a laboratory, making the initiative self-sustaining. And the search is on for two more like-minded family physicians and other health practitioners.

As can be expected, some visitors arrive via ambulance; after the doors opened last summer, 219 patients received urgent treatment in the first six months. The vast majority are no longer automatically transported to the regional hospital in Nanaimo (a half-hour ferry ride away), saving lives, hundreds of thousands of dollars and stress on patients and the system.

In 2002, the sudden loss of the long-standing means of late-night emergency evacuation was the final straw, breaking a fragile, unfunded infrastructure and adding another extreme element to a full-blown, perfect medical crisis storm. Only one full-time doctor was responding to emergencies – without pay from government medical on-call funding – treating patients from the trunk of her car, often using medicine and supplies borrowed from paramedics. The community had raised funds for a defibrillator, but there was no place to store it, no drugs such as clot-busters and no facility to recruit and retain on-call doctors or to diagnose, stabilize and treat patients.

BC Ferries shuffled back and forth, finally making the decision to stop calling on skeleton crews for after-hours evacuations. The social contract and proud service, as far back as anyone could remember, was scuttled. The Nanaimo Harbour patrol vessel was utilized as backup, but too often it was also unavailable because of other duties and priorities. Secondary backups were the open Zodiacs of Coast Guard Auxiliaries.

Dr. Bob Henderson, a rural locum (temporary) physician who lives on Gabriola says, “I remember one winter night when we managed to get a frightened, seriously ill and bleeding patient down a steep incline, inside an ambulance to a private dock and then into a small open boat. After hooking up an IV, we covered the patient with a plastic sheet for protection while being transported over five miles of rough, frigid waters to Nanaimo. There was no room for the doctor on board.”

I reported other “horrific,” “nightmarish” incidents for the community newspaper, the Gabriola Sounder until 2007. Then, in a series of articles entitled “Let’s build a medical clinic,” a meeting was called for. The Gabriola Health Care Society was immediately incorporated, with free membership offered to all residents (visit and an incredible $30,000 was raised during St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The Gabriola Lions, Ambulance Society and other organizations got involved. Volunteers created an interim urgent/primary care clinic in a vacant liquor store and a second on-call doctor was hired.

Island life was transformed, including a dramatic drop in residents with health problems having to move away. A new community vision took shape, gathering support, along with plans for a larger, permanent facility that would offer enhanced and long overdue services and prevention, such as immunizations, counselling, chronic disease care and much more. Over 30 fund-raising events were staged in 2010, “The Year of the Clinic.” $27,000 was scooped up in ice cream sales alone. While fundraising is a harsh fact of life in stifling economic downturns and in downsized, dysfunctional government, the rise of the Internet and social media provides new tools for information gathering and sharing, creating and sustaining broad-based ownership and involvement, readily available to smaller grassroots groups.

When resident Bob Rooks, a retired veterinarian, donated 4.1 acres of land, it touched off “2011: The Year of Construction,” unleashing another new dimension: the untapped and unprecedented potential of baby-boomers. We Gabriolans discovered that our aging population can create solutions. The new ‘elderly’ have more years of healthy, productive life than ever before, along with time, funds, expertise and contacts. Architects, project managers, trades-people and others emerged – often, just like the money, when required – buoyed by the joy of healthy commitment and inspiring camaraderie.

The ‘miracle’ is movable. Our Clinic, a new book by Bruce Mason, documents, celebrates and shares the story of the Gabriola Community Health Centre, which was born in crisis, virtually abandoned by government and ultimately created and nurtured by community. Email

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