May 4  
Sydenham District hospital lifeline of community

My adopted community of Wallaceburg is currently in a life and death struggle to keep its hospital open. It is a struggle that has been undertaken several times before -- and a struggle that shows government out of touch with its constituents.
Clearly, the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), which has placed our hospital in its precarious position, doesn't understand what an institution like Sydenham District Hospital means to the people of Wallaceburg.
The hospital was built in the late 1950s mainly with the blood, sweat and tears of the people of this community. It operated for almost 40 years as a source of pride.

It was, like Wallaceburg Memorial Arena, an important part of the town's infrastructure and heritage. Generations of children were born there, lives were saved, older generations died there.

I became part of the Sydenham District Hospital family in 1988. A retired teacher, Matt Miletic, and a member of the hospital board of directors paid a visit to my office at the Wallaceburg News. They said the hospital was in danger of losing its accreditation and only a miracle could save it. Could I help?

I joined the fundraising committee and watched a miracle unfold. Getting the hospital back on track would cost $2 million, a lofty sum for the town of 11,000, but the committee and the community took on the challenge. And in the ensuing three years, $2.4 million was raised and the hospital was refurbished from top to bottom.

The people of Wallaceburg poured their hearts into the campaign. I remember photographing a Beaver troop that had scoured the town for discarded pop bottles so they could make a contribution to the campaign.

I was moved to tears watching elderly people on fixed incomes make donations, volunteers painted the hospital throughout, the ladies from the Catholic Women's League made the drapes for every room, families and businesses adopted rooms.

Every single sector of the community helped raise the money that saved the hospital. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been part of it.

It was a proud day in 1991 when the hospital was deemed safe and secure and the fundraising committee was transformed into the Sydenham District Hospital Foundation with about $400,000 in the bank. Sydenham District Hospital was the people's hospital and it belonged to the people of Wallaceburg.

Of course, SDH came under threat a couple of times in the early '90s as the provincial government tried to figure out what to do with rural health care, but the community rallied every time, packing the high school gym with thousands of people each time a new threat loomed.

The most catastrophic thing that happened to SDH occurred in the late 1990s when the hospital was "amalgamated" into the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance. The people of Wallaceburg essentially lost control of their hospital with that amalgamation.

Almost immediately, the bureaucrats in the Health Alliance began dismantling the hospital. Mammography was moved, the maternity department (known in Wallaceburg as the Burgess Birthing Centre, supported by the Kinsmen Club) was moved. ICU is the latest to be moved. And now, emergency is under threat.

But the people of Wallaceburg rally again and I get tears in my eyes once more thinking about the fiercely independent spirit of these people. Former mayor Jeff Wesley is leading the Save Our Sydenham Committee that is doing everything possible to save the hospital. Every person in Wallaceburg is cheering on the SOS Committee and doing everything to support it.

This renewed threat to the hospital should, however, be a symbol to rural residents across Ontario. The province has no real strategy for delivering health care in rural areas. Right now, it's all about the money -- how can government save a few bucks?

But this discussion should be about people and not money, because these are life and death matters. We need a rural health care strategy that supports rural hospitals and makes sure they don't come under constant threat from bureaucrats who have no idea what they mean to their communities.

POSTED BY: John Gardiner is a Wallaceburg resident and publisher of, an online weekly newspaper., london
POSTED ON: May 4, 2009