JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
NIAGARA – Do you remember your first kiss? I do.
I was 10 and so was she. Her name was Shelley. I remember her last name, too, but I won’t mention it. I don’t want to embarass her if she still lives in Niagara.
Shelley and I were both patients at Greater Niagara General Hospital. I was a frequent visitor to the former pediatric ward, that long corridor of rooms that used to run parallel to Kitchener Street.
I had asthma.
Don’t quite remember why she was there. The room we were in was the old dorm-style, with three beds on each side, divided by bathrooms and sinks.
I don’t know why she took a fancy to me. I was thin and dorky looking, wheezing, with a runny nose and bloodshot eyes. I had just spent a week in an oxygen tent and was barely up and out of bed.
Just before lights out we played a game of Operation. You remember, that’s the game where you have to stick the tiny tweezers into a hole and remove the little plastic body part. If you’re not careful, the tweezers touch the metal sides and a red bulb lights up along with an annoying buzzer sound.
Afterward, I climbed into my bed about the same time as the nurse turned out the lights. It wasn’t a minute later when I felt a soft tap on my shoulder. I rolled over to find Shelley standing there next to my bed. She didn’t say anything. Instead, she leaned over and kissed me on the lips.
I can still taste the fruity lip balm she was wearing. I’m sure my eyes were wide open through the whole kiss. Again, without saying anything, she crept back to her side of the room and went to bed. Eventually I fell asleep, too.
In the morning, I woke up, eager to see her. Much to my disappointment, she had already been discharged from the hospital. I never saw her again. The memory of that kiss, though, stayed with me to this day 35 years later.
It is one of those wonderful childhood memories that you cherish forever and just one of countless memories associated with the Niagara Falls hospital. In those days GNGH was barely 20 years old. In those days, children with asthma like me spent a lot of time in places like GNGH.
To the best of my recollection, I had at least four dozen hospitalizations before I turned 16 years old. I spent Christmas at GNGH, two birthdays, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Canada Day.
Many summer holidays were interrupted by visits to the hospital, which usually lasted five days to two weeks. By today’s standards, treatment for asthmatics was primitive.
The long days and lonely nights were made easier by some of the most compassionate people I have ever known, like my family doctor, John Palmer, who I wanted to grow up and be just like, and the nurses, who used to help me with my homework and read to me when my mother had to work nights and couldn’t visit.
I have a lot of other memories about GNGH – some happy, some sad. Many years later, I remember walking alongside the stretcher as they wheeled my youngest son into surgery. It was only a minor procedure and he was fine afterward, but when his little hand slipped out of mine as they took him into the operating room, the tears flowed uncontrollably down my cheeks.
It was the same a few years ago when, on a cold New Year’s day, I carried my mother, her body ravaged and made skeletal by ovarian cancer, through the doors of the Jeff Morgan emergency department. I was certain mom was near death. In fact, she didn’t have long to live and nothing could have changed that. But she didn’t die that night.
The ER doc on shift that night, Paul Dobrovolskis, calmed me down, took my mother by the hand and reassured her she’d be feeling better in no time. A kind and gentle man, he and the nurses at GNGH treated my mom like she was their mom, too.
Strong emotions recalling that experience. And strong emotions = deeply seated memories.
So I guess that’s why I have such a hard time coming to terms with the idea that GNGH could soon close, to be replaced by a new Niagara south hospital as proposed by Niagara Health System supervisor Kevin Smith. Good memories and bad, GNGH has been such a big part of my life I can hardly imagine a time when I will drive down Portage Road and the Big Blue ‘H’ will be gone.
I have struggled even more with the idea that very soon, the pediatric department will close as part of a consolidation that will see departments in Niagara Falls and Welland merged into one unit at the new St. Catharines health care complex. I can’t argue with the logic.
You see a lot fewer kids are admitted to hospital these days, which is a good thing. Kids with asthma today spend much more time at home today thanks to advances in medicine. When they do have to be hospitalized, it’s for shorter periods of time. It’s the same for many other childhood diseases.
Combined with a shortage of specialists and the ever-increasing cost of state-of-the-art medical equipment, there’s a compelling case to be made for consolidating obstetrics and pediatrics into a single location.
For the time being that place will be St. Catharines, but if a new Niagara south hospital is built, Smith says maternity and pediatrics should move to that more centrally-located facility. Academic arguments alone, however, were not enough to convince me that Smith’s plan makes sense.
What did that was the several tours I have had of the new St. Catharines health care complex and Walker Family Cancer Centre, which is set to open at the end of March. Standing inside that impressive facility, I was amazed.
Then I asked myself one question: If, God forbid, my children or my family members or friends need to stay in a hospital, wouldn’t I want them to be cared for in a place like this?
The answer was yes, I do. That facility is exactly what I want for my family and for myself. Clean, modern, bright, safe – it’s also the kind of place I want for the doctors, nurses, caretakers, volunteers, who make hospitals so much more than bricks and mortar. Yes, I support the plan to build a new Niagara south hospital, even if it means saying goodbye to GNGH and Douglas Memorial Hospital, in Fort Erie, the community I have lived in for the past 21 years.
Yes, I believe in Smith’s plan and I am willing to donate to make this vision for south Niagara happen. There’s a catch, though.
At this point, it’s still a plan and, unless more people like you and I speak up, it may never happen. Essentially, Niagara is asking the provincial government to spend another $800 million to build a second new hospital.
Sure, Smith’s plan is a heck of a deal for the province, considering he estimates it’ll cost more than $1 billion to, in the alternative, upgrade and modernize the existing facilities in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, Welland and Port Colborne. Still, the provincial government has been reluctant to say yes to a new Niagara south hospital.
Like the McGuinty cabinet before, the new government of Kathleen Wynne is probably waiting to see which way the wind blows, whether a strong enough of a consensus in support of the Niagara south hospital concept develops.
There are some hopeful signs things are heading in the right direction. Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak recently endorsed Smith’s bold proposal.
Opposition support will help, but I believe it’ll take more than that.
The new premier has already heard from her Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor, who has supported the plan from Day 1. Now she needs to hear from us. She needs to know that average Niagara residents are willing to set aside our parochial differences, our misgivings, and yes, our sentimental memories of hospitals past, and commit to this project.
How can we do that? Call or email her. Sign a petition. If you can’t find one of the ones already circulating, create one yourself. Write letters to the editor at Bullet News and every other media outlet in Niagara saying you support Smith’s plan.
Talk to your friends. Help convince them to join in the vision. It’s a historic opportunity we have before us. Let’s not waste it. Let’s build this hospital, together.
We can do it.