SURVIVING THE GAUNTLET
There is nothing as grand as the re-opening of a hospital which has had more death notices than those who have passed to a cemetery.
Its survival is a medical miracle, a tribute to the intense work of staff, volunteers and a host of ghosts whom I'm sure smiled and high-fived each other as they peered down at the ceremony.
In a way, they were the ghosts of Christmas past who didn't want an old converted school doing good work to vanish into the mists of history.
Christmas has always been a grand time at what we used to call Runnymede Chronic Care Hospital. There must be moments of sad nostalgia for patients but the food has always been wonderful. One thing I enjoyed as a director, besides the staff's happy enthusiasm, were the meals, the best of any hospital I've ever tasted. And the kitchen staff surpasses themselves at Christmas.
It was two decades ago that I joined the board. The provincial health ministry had just talked, again, about closing it down. And for most of the years that followed, there was an obstacle or eviction notice to match every gain.
What was frustrating was the waltz of the health ministers of ALL parties who praised the service and talked a great game about how Runnymede should evolve into a new facility because, after all, it combined a marvelous atmosphere, free of the usual smells of an antiquated chronic care facility, with efficiency and care.
As a columnist and editor, I was part of a trusty band of their lobbyists who would meet with any politician who dared open their door even a crack. We never were confronted with hostility and proof the hospital wasn't doing a good job, but real help never came.
When Deb Matthews, minister of health and long-term care, cut the ribbon just before 10 a.m. on Dec. 8, she was merely the latest of ministers who stretched back to the failed promises of Elinor Caplan, the Grit who kept a Runnymede poster in her office but never gave us a buck, Ruth Grier, the new Democrat who praised us, but....to Tories like Jim Wilson, Cam Jackson, and Tony Clement who also were filled with blarney rather than bucks.
Then David Caplan, the son, who remembered his mother's poster, really delivered. In a tortuous process that would take a book to detail, Runnymede was promised around $60 million for a 210-bed facility through the hidden work of his chief staffer, Ross Parry, and Parry's former political boss, Morley Kells (Neither of whom have ever been to the hospital.)
We had to keep our mouths shut because of the smoke drifting from the battlefield where every prominent director in the land fired barrages demanding help for their facility. Who did what to whom makes for heated discussions. All I know is that by the time confusion emerged out of chaos, Runnymede ended up with a 200-bed hospital fully equipped with all the latest. And it owes nothing, the $90 million cost being covered by $75 million from Queen's Park and $14 million from the community.
Connie Dejak, the Runnymede veteran of 25 years who runs the hospital, points out proudly that her hospital is the only one to fulfill its financial commitment of community involvement. That's due to the wonderful fund-raising by Peter Harris. (At one point I was fund-raising chair, my most disastrous public chore.)
In 1995, I wrote a column midst yet another crisis for Ontario hospitals where I had a scoop on hospitals to be closed, merged or curbed. (I recall criticizing the operation of St. Mikes, which produced an angry defensive memo from my publisher who was on that board.)
I wrote: "Runnymede is the only hospital in the province never to close a bed during the budget cutting. It is either the best in operating economically, or nearly there, and it generally has the heaviest patient care load." I pointed out, before swiping at St. Mike's "supposed" improved handling of its debts, that the Runnymede community had raised its share of costs of a new facility while the ministry had reneged for seven years.
The original building was the Strathcona Public School that opened in 1908. As World War Two ended, it became a city chronic care hospital, first of all for veterans, and then endured through the years with around 100 patients jammed into the old classrooms. When Queen's Park established a hospital restructuring commission to sort out the enormous problem of hospital funding, the commission, to some surprise, actually recommended that chronic care be eliminated, that the needy patients be looked after either by acute care hospitals (where they were bed blockers at a crisis in bed shortages and staff preferred to work elsewhere in the hospital) or in nursing homes (that neither had the facilities or medical staff to care for and feed incontinent wheelchair-bound patients.)
To illustrate the seriousness of the bed blocker problem that still exists, the latest survey of Canadian hospital showed that on any given day, there are 7,550 beds in acute care hospitals occupied by patients waiting for beds in other facilities, whether they're call chronic care, continuing care or long-term care.
Fortunately, this is easing just as a major problem for Ontario has become its graying population where patients with several major medical problems are living longer and their needs just can't be met in their home or homes for the aged. In regular hospitals, they would occupy a badly needed bed for the rest of their lives.
This minister arrived with $8 million more so that Runnymede can handle another 57 patients. So times are good, after 50 years of waiting for someone, anyone, to deliver a new building, whether it be the health minister or even Santa.
I thought of the many not there for the ceremony, my Christmas ghosts, who had yearned for this day, from Dr. Jeff Mainprize (a famous west-end name in medicine and pharmacy) Judy Malcom, Marian Maloney, Joe Cruden, and Dick Perry. Board politics haven't always been smooth so there were others missing because of the fights, like Norm Allaire, Terry Creighton, Barry Laver and Charlie Reid. There have been many changes in only a few years. I know only a third of the directors and only half of my fellow members of the corporation.
I closed that column 15 years ago with a plea that the provincial government be fair and wise as it rewarded and closed and changed the hospitals which devour such a huge share of its budget. 'Let's reward the hospitals which have been run well," I said. And so it has, so take a bow, McGuinty government, Connie Dejak, board chair George Cushing and Dr. Stephen Ng, the medical chief.
How nice it is to write that for once the good guys won.