Last Friday before dawn and under an extreme cold weather warning, 73-year-old Mary-Helen Hopkins set out from her home in Grande Prairie to Wembley in the hopes of landing a family doctor. 

As it turned out, she was one of hundreds who responded to a social media post from the Wembley Medical Clinic earlier that week. 

It stated Dr. Angela Luckham would be accepting new patients and asked that people who did not have a family physician come to the clinic for 9 a.m. where 140 packages would be available. 

“I’ve been searching for a family doctor for years now,” said Hopkins. She describes the trip as “very scary,” with temperatures below -40 C, a windchill of -50, with the highway slippery and foggy. 

Since her previous family doctor left for Edmonton, Hopkins has been without one for years. 

She wasn’t alone in her trek for a new doctor. Traffic around the clinic in the pre-dawn hours in Wembley was in gridlock by many accounts, with some arriving as early as 7 a.m. 

Later, the clinic said due to the cold, a number system was implemented at the “last minute” to allow early birds to wait in their cars. 

The clinic stated on its social media page more than 300 new patient packages were distributed.

“Our health care system is in crisis,” said the clinic’s post. 

“The desperation of our friends and neighbours to secure a family doctor highlights that.”

When Hopkins arrived in Wembley around 8 a.m., the parking lot was full, and she parked a “couple of blocks” away and began her hike to the clinic. 

“Thank God for my snug-as-a-bug -40 suit,” she said.

When she arrived, she learned that people were to grab a number; the number being served would be displayed in the clinic window so people could wait in their cars.

No numbers were available for Hopkins or many others congregating at the clinic. Even if she had one, Hopkins noted her vehicle was parked too far away to see the number displayed on the clinic window if she were waiting in it.

She will continue to rely on services like Telus Health to refill prescriptions when needed, but due to being hearing impaired, she worries that she might misunderstand or mishear what a doctor tells her through a virtual appointment. 

“Telus Health is okay for some things, but they can’t look at your body or do any hands-on testing.”

She also noted that if she does get sent somewhere for tests done by a lab or the hospital, the results are hard to read without the help of a physician.

Zachary Bourque and his wife arrived at the clinic around 7:50 a.m. and obtained ticket number 131. He said papers labelled 1 to 140 were taped to the clinic’s door for people to take. He believes the clinic hoped people would wait in their vehicles and come when their number was called. 

It didn’t stop people from creating a line, he said. 

“Just as many people had a ticket as the ones that didn’t. 

“People were standing in line in hopes that there would be no shows from people with tickets when numbers started to be called at 9 a.m.,” said Bourque.

“Believe it or not, some people showed up in sweaters, sweatpants, jeans, and jackets. 

“I witnessed people sharing layers, jackets, and hand warmers with strangers who came unprepared for the -40s. 

“Hard to see Albertan families putting their skin at risk of frostbite for the slim chance of obtaining a family doctor.” 

He said when his number was finally called, no application packages were available, but his name was taken to be put on a waiting list. 

Shelly Rutherford, a County of Grande Prairie resident just east of Wembley, got number 118, but she said she isn’t sure her family will receive a family physician. 

She was put on the waiting list, and believes she was one of the first who had a number and didn’t receive a package. 

Rutherford’s family doctor closed his practice and went into emergency care about a year ago, leaving her family, husband and two children. 

It is essential to her that her family get a physician, especially since one of her children has health concerns.

“We need a steady doctor to follow up with instead of seeing a new doctor every time at walk-in clinics.”

“We are hopeful to get a call in the coming weeks,” she said.

“The clinic did everything they possibly can to keep people warm and safe,” she said. 

Clairmont resident Alicia Volkman arrived in Wembley around 7 a.m. 

She said about 20 minutes passed before she realized she needed to take a number; someone told her to take one for each household member. 

She would later learn only one was needed per household.  

“The communication was not great,” she said.

Volkman wants a doctor who understands her family’s medical history instead of explaining the context to a new doctor every visit, especially as she and her husband look to start their own family. 

“The clinic did the right thing to try and keep people safe in this weather,” said Justin Lieverse.

“Only thing that could have been better was to add on the sign ‘if all numbers are gone, please go home as that means we are at capacity.’”

Lieverse grew up in the area, and his family physician closed his practice with the opening of the Grande Prairie Regional Hospital, leaving him and his family looking for a doctor. 

He said his girlfriend has been struggling to navigate the medical system as she remains undiagnosed with an issue.

“Getting a regular family doctor will help; we have even tried as far away as Peace River, Fairview and Spirit River.”

By the time Sharon Mittelstaedt arrived no numbers were available and she joined a lineup of hopeful individuals. She left after being told there were no more numbers left.

“It sounds like some people did end up getting tickets, even though they didn’t have any originally because a lady went around collecting extra tickets so now I’m kind of kicking myself for not staying in line. 

“I kind of think the odds of even getting one are pretty slim.”

She said she wasn’t expecting so many people, especially considering the extreme cold weather.

“We are desperate,” said Mittelstaedt. 

She said she noticed social media comments that the doctor should only take Wembley residents. She said she knows of Sexsmith residents with a doctor in the city and city residents with doctors in Sexsmith.

“You just go wherever you possibly can,” she said, noting she would be willing to travel as far as Hythe or Valleyview to get a family doctor. 

Mittelstaedt thinks an emphasis on training local doctors needs to be made in the Grande Prairie region. She believes doctors with roots in the area will result in more doctors staying in the area. 

Nicole Major came from Grande Prairie with her four-year-old son, hoping to get her family a doctor. 

She said they bundled up for the cold only to be turned away. 

She has been without a family physician for years; her previous doctor was in Fairview, about 120 km north of Grande Prairie.

“It feels like you’re getting the golden ticket if you have a (family) doctor,” said Major. 

One person who wished to remain anonymous said they had managed a clinic in another community for seven years and stressed the need for family doctors for patients with long-term disabilities. 

They noted a family member in the Grande Prairie area with a permanent brain injury who has needed a family doctor since 2018.

People with long-term disabilities need family doctors to be advocates for them, and it’s something that virtual and even walk-in doctors struggle to do, they said.

“It’s unfortunately an administrative hassle, but it’s something that is life and death for people with long-term disabilities,” they said.

The Wembley Medical Clinic posted on social media, “we encourage you to contact your local MLAs or visit and voice your frustrations with the lack of family doctors in this area and our crumbling primary care system. 

“We’re doing our best, but know it’s only a drop in the bucket.”

Dr. Luckham declined Town & Country News request for an interview.

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jan 18, 2024 at 09:39

This item reprinted with permission from   Town & Country News   Beaverlodge, Alberta

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