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Charmaine McGraw / Township of Nipigon
It could have been bad – very bad. After enjoying three days of music at Live from the Rock Folk Festival in Red Rock, Ontario, Judith Taylor and husband Larry Carpenter hardly expected they’d face a life and death situation – with Judy’s life.
“In 2009, we sailed our sailboat Allegro to the Canadian north shore. … It was our sixth year attending the Red Rock folk music festival,” recalls Judy. “I knew I had an aortic valve that was failing, but I didn’t know how bad it was. And at the closing ceremonies, I had some sort of cardiac event that left me unconscious, with no pulse and turning blue.
“After six rounds of CPR – so they tell me – I was back … and off to Nipigon hospital.”
A town with a population of fewer than 2,000 may not sound like a medical haven, but Nipigon District Memorial Hospital provides state-of-the-art care beyond what might be expected of its remote location.
Located on the western shores of the Nipigon River, the town is the starting point for a long water highway that stretches from Lake Superior to James Bay in the Canadian sub-Arctic, a route first trafficked by First Nations paddlers, then fur traders, trappers, missionaries, explorers and surveyors.
Nipigon’s first medical doctor arrived in 1905. Transcontinental Railways hired Dr. Herman Bryan right out of the University of Toronto’s medical school to look after workers surveying and building the railway along the Lake, north to Armstrong and east to Hearst. Referring to himself as “Doctor of Snowshoes,” he covered hundreds of miles by rail, canoe, dogsled and snowshoes to visit patients. His small office was tucked in the railway’s Nipigon survey office. His drug and surgical supplies were stored on open shelves made from empty dynamite boxes.
For Nipigon, those days of rugged frontier care are long gone. Nipigon District Memorial Hospital employs about 100 people and delivers services to a catchment area of about 5,000 people. The hospital, built in 1992, offers stays for acute care (15 beds), extended care (14 beds), chronic care (7 beds) and respite care (1 bed).
Ambulance services with 23 part- or full-time paramedics cover east to Ouimet Canyon and north to Jellico near Lake Nipigon.
“A real advantage to being in a smaller community is that we can have top-notch medical service without the wait so often experienced in hospitals in large centers, and virtually every service is available,” says Nipigon Mayor Richard Harvey.
The hospital delivers an impressive range of first-class services, from acute to long-term care. It also offers cancer care, cardiac care, a foot-care clinic, a medical day care program and emergency care, including labour and delivery services. It has diagnostic, rehabilitative and diabetes outreach services and specialist clinics – on-site and via video conferences.
The hospital has established strong community service partnerships to help elders and the terminally ill stay in their homes, including meal delivering and respite care. It offers a hospice palliative care program through a partnership with Thunder Bay-based Hospice Northwest.
“The Nipigon District Hospital is an integral part of our community. Despite being the most northern hospital on Lake Superior, we are blessed with having a full-service modern hospital, as good and as modern as you will find anywhere,” says Richard. “Tourists who use our hospital, especially Americans, always comment on the service they receive and the care given.”
Judy Taylor has nothing but praise for her Nipigon stay. “I spent three days in the Nipigon hospital and received excellent and attentive care in a beautiful facility.
“Everyone that we came in contact with – doctor, hospital administrator, nurses, townspeople – some appeared in my room to see if I needed anything, even though I didn’t really know them! – and even the local car dealership went out of their way to help us and to make sure that we had what we needed. But I’d also quickly say this is very typical of people in this beautiful, but remote, area.”
A & D Brennen Motor Sales is a good example, Judy adds. When Larry arrived at the Nipigon marina with their sailboat after her emergency, he approached the dealership to rent a car. It doesn’t rent cars, he was told.
Larry explained that he really needed a vehicle to get to the hospital, where his wife was taken.
“We heard about you,” a sales representative said. “You just go see the service manager.”
The manager handed Larry a set of keys for a vehicle to use – no charge – while Judy was hospitalized.
Back in Minneapolis, Judith had the heart valve replaced. Since the surgery, she has walked on glaciers in Patagonia, climbed the hills above fjords in Newfoundland and hiked to an overlook above the Lake Superior wilderness. She’s confident on their Ontario shore adventures that if she needs help, she knows where to get it.
“If you happen to be in the area and need medical attention, you can be sure of receiving excellent care with the sort of caring attention typical of folks in this part of the world. This northern-most hospital on Lake Superior is really quite something!”
Thunder Bay author Elle Andra-Warner is a frequent contributor to this magazine.