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Society lobbying for Red Deer hospital expansion celebrates five years

$1.8 billion expansion project good news but society’s work not done
Dr. Kym Jim (right) of the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta, addresses an audience of concerned Red Deer-area residents — with group members Joan Donald and Dr. Alan Poole looking on — in 2019. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff)

The Alberta government’s $1.8 billion hospital expansion pledge followed years of tireless lobbying by a small group of health-care providers and concerned citizens.

Formed five years ago, the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta (SHECA) stood up and made sure that residents, health-care providers and government decision makers understood how desperate the need was to expand hospital services in the region.

“It’s amazing how in the five years since SHECA was started it has flown by in some ways. In other ways, it seems like it’s sort of been like beating our heads against the wall,” said founding member Dr. Keith Wolstenholme.

“(The) announcement, I think, is finally putting our heads through the wall,” he joked.

“It’s been a journey, absolutely. It’s been an emotional journey of advocacy and yesterday was a bit of a cathartic release.”

Wolstenholme and other SHECA members are under no illusions that they can now step back from their advocacy.

“It hasn’t been easy. It will continue to not be easy. SHECA is not going to go away because of the announcement.

“I think we take our responsibilities seriously to make sure that the push is still on the gas pedal for health care for central Albertans.”

Wolstenholme, who has taken on his role as advocate while working full-time as an orthopedic surgeon, said the commitment SHECA required was bigger than he imagined.

“It was something I under-estimated coming into this,” he said.

Among the more eye-opening challenges was the amount of detective work required to get the data and hard statistics to back up their warnings that regional health-care was close to the breaking point and the region was being short-changed.

“It’s not easy to get access to information, especially sensitive information, such as how money gets spent, where and by who and on what.”

Also the sheer volume of time it takes to lobby was another revelation. “You realize why there are such things as professional lobbyists out there and why big industry will hire professional lobbyists to do this work.

“It really is a job in and of itself.”

That work has been done by a small group. SHECA only has a dozen or some members, including four or five physicians, as well as other health professionals and concerned citizens. Adding to the challenge is that meetings had to be done by Zoom because of the pandemic.

Dr. Kym Jim said the society brought together people who shared similar concerns about the local health-care system but got there by different roads.

“There are people who have had family members affected by (hospital) conditions. There are advocates who are business people in the community and they come to it because they recognize the importance of the hospital and that it represents the fabric of the community.

“There are people who are up for a fight and are applying their technical skills and the things we needed help with along the way.

“There are lots of different reasons why people have come to this.”

Jim said society members have some sense of satisfaction that their efforts have made a difference.

“SHECA is proud of what we have accomplished but we all recognize that there is a long road ahead to see the completion of this project.”

He also points out that the advocacy work by those concerned with central Alberta health care had been going on for a decade before the society was formed in 2016 in reaction to Red Deer hospital being taken off the province’s long-term capital spending plan.

“That really formed the catalyst to why it was that this society was formed. I think we realized that while we were on a list we were never anyone’s priority.

“I think SHECA brought to light there was unfairness in the distribution of health-care infrastructure dollars.”

Jim and Wolstenholme said SHECA members are hoping to gather this week to hold a small celebration to recognize their five-year anniversary.

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