The doctors are in

Last year around this time, Fort St. James was down to one local doctor and there was no help in sight.

Three family practice physicians departed the town on Highway 27 at the end of 2011 and in early 2012, leaving only Dr. Paul Stent to man the fort at the clinic and Stuart Lake Hospital.

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"There was a lot of worry, a lot of angst and concern," Fort St. James Mayor Rob MacDougall recalled. "But it was something that was out of our control."

With only one permanent doctor and a series of locums coming in and out to help, the emergency room was open intermittently throughout much of 2012. With the nearest hospital 40 minutes away, MacDougall said people subconsciously became more safety-minded knowing help wasn't necessarily available close by.

At CNC's campus in Fort St. James, instructors even changed the way they evaluated some classes. In the chef's program, speed was no not considered as part of the grade when the students were chopping up ingredients, instead accuracy was emphasized above all else.

MacDougall and other leaders in the town of 1,700 people knew something needed to be done, and fast.

"When you have a local crisis, everyone puts their heads together to find a solution," MacDougall said. "It may be a local solution or it may be working with other agencies to find a solution. We look local first, of course."

That solution was found remarkably quickly after the community rallied around a plan that would see local people lead part of the recruitment drive and a local committee operate the clinic through a not-for-profit society.

Drs. Anton Meyer and Marile and Pieter Van Zyl arrived in the last quarter of last year and one more is set to arrive later this spring. Less than a year after the future of local medicine was in doubt, the town's health care prospects are as bright as ever.

Ann McCormick, the supervisor of the CNC campus, helped organize the grassroots effort to convince the physicians to move to Fort St. James and is part of the committee getting the non-profit clinic off the ground. After Northern Health hired dedicated recruiters and identified potential candidates, the local group swung into action organizing tailored site visits depending on who was coming.

"In the past what had happened was doctors would come in, look around, turn around and drive out," McCormick said. "They really never got a sense of who we were and what we were about."

Each visit required about 20 volunteers to donate time or services. The two-day trips included visits to the local golf club, ski hills and medical facilities, lunch at the national historic site, helicopter trips and host of other activities. If it was a young couple who were being wooed, the group included other like-minded young professionals. If the doctor of their partner was into the arts, the local artistic community made an appearance.

"We took a look at their resume and thought, 'how would they fit into this community if they came here?' " McCormick said. "And we were very sincere about it."

Pieter and Marlie Van Zyl said the outdoor lifestyle of Fort St. James appealed to them. The young couple from South Africa had been working in emergency medicine prior to coming to B.C. and said they were impressed their demographic is well represented in the community.

"We had a dinner at one of the local people's houses and at that stage we were still undecided about our decision, " Pieter said. "The fact that they invited people that were our age that are professionals and are social, played a huge role."

Marile was impressed by the aboriginal involvement in the recruitment because the rural care is important to them.

"In this area where there are a lot of rural communities, it's good to invest in that," she said. "If those committees are healthy then you have a healthy town."

The doctors also received recruitment portfolios with more information on the community, including details on schools and places of worship.

Although the visits were specially designed to show off all Fort St. James has to offer, some of the highlights of the tours were the unscripted moments.

Economic development officer Emily Colombo, one of the young professionals involved in the recruitment, remembered a unique experience at the historic site.

"The historic site manager's wife came by and they raise quail," she recalled. "She had a bunch of quail eggs, yoghurt containers full of them, wanting to share them with whoever wanted them. So the [prospective doctors] were able to take these very special eggs and I think it was something unique that you wouldn't see in just any town."

McCormick said the doctors also got a glimpse of what the community was like when they visited the Nakazdli Health Centre.

"The health centre was doing what they normally do that day, they were gathering medicinal medicines from the field," she said, noting local First Nations groups played a key role in the recruitment drive.

The key, according to McCormick, was focusing on what Fort St. James has rather than what the town lacks. Sitting on the shores of Stuart Lake and with the golf course and ski hill, she said the group projected the image of a resort-like community. With the a thriving medical community just down the road in Vanderhoof and Prince George about two hours away, the message the recruits were given was positive.

Northern Health played a major role in getting the word out about Fort St. James at recruiting fairs and helped the community fund some of its site visit activities, but Dr. Sean Ebert said it was important for Fort St. James to sell itself to prospective recruits.

"Communities sell their community to a physician better than anyone else," said Ebert, who is based in Vanderhoof and helped establish the Northern Interior Rural Division of Family Practice. "You can't rely on the government and you can't rely on the health authority. I told them flat out, 'you need to own an operate this clinic because it's your interest.' "

Although not every doctor who was wooed decided to move to Fort St. James, enough came that the community can now boast about having a full-service clinic. That's made Colombo's job of attracting other professionals to the area that much easier.

"It's hard to sell people on a community when you only have one doctor for [a regional population of] 5,000 people," Colombo said. "That's not the sort of community people want to move to, bring their families to or start up a family in. You want a place that you know if you need it you're going to be safe and secure."

The successful recruitment not only means better access to health care, McCormick said there's an added benefit in increased civic pride.

"Those 20 people who were involved now feel empowered because it didn't happen to them, it happened with them," she said. "That's the part that will keep our doctors here. Those people feel they have some ownership in what's happening."

MacDougall said the mood of the community has shifted now that a full complement of doctors has been secured. He was also quick to praise Stent, who kept everything running during the year when he was the only permanent doctor in town.

"Without him we would have been in a worse crisis," he said. "He was the only doctor here for almost a year. He delayed holidays, he was thinking or retiring and of course that didn't happen last year."

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