Fogo Island’s last doctor leaves. How many inhabitants will follow?


Cancer treatments and surgeries were hard enough – she left the hospital with drainage tubes or exhausted from chemotherapy.

But the breaking point for Sabrina Payne was the six-hour round trip from Fogo Island, Newfoundland, to Gander that she took every two weeks to get them.

This included a sometimes unpredictable and mostly uncomfortable ferry crossing.

“I remember crying in the car. I didn’t want to get out of the car to take the ferry,” she said.

Fogo Island ferry crossings are already packed with medical travellers, but with the province-wide doctor shortage about to hit this community, Payne’s story is set to become more mainstream.

In June, the last permanent doctor at the Fogo Island Health Clinic is leaving his practice, which will send even more patients on the ferry – and possibly off the island for good.

Complicated trips

Payne said all of that travel had an emotional and physical impact, compounding the pain of a cancer diagnosis.

“I remember when I came back from my double mastectomy in September, I just wanted to stay in the car. I had drainage tubes hanging everywhere, I didn’t feel well, I had only had the operation twice. days before. And I begged them to let me stay in my car, and they weren’t allowed to.”

The trip became one more unnecessary headache: in winter you had to deal with bad weather, and in summer the queues for the ferries got so long that you might have to wait all day to make sure a place on a crossing.

Sabrina Payne, pictured with two of her children, was diagnosed with breast cancer almost two years ago. (Submitted by Sabrina Payne)

In January, pushed to the limit, Payne sold her home and business on Fogo Island and moved to a rental apartment in Gander to be closer to her treatments.

“It took me a long time to make the decision, because I absolutely loved the place,” she said. “But eventually my sanity was declining because it was – everything was a chore.”

“I guess we’re going to have to stop and move”

Traveling for medical reasons is part of life for Fogo Islanders. Although the island’s health clinic offers laboratory and X-ray services, most appointments with specialists are made off-island.

Maureen Lynch has just started the journey herself, traveling to Gander for physiotherapy appointments to work on her back. But due to the unpredictability of the ferry, planning them is not an easy task.

Maureen Lynch lives in Island Harbour, one of the smaller communities on Fogo Island. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

“I try to schedule my appointments when the ferry is – not on dangerous goods day and a day she’s on a late trip, because sometimes you can run into a late appointment,” she said.

On the current schedule, it’s only Wednesday and Friday.

“And it’s not always easy to get dates when you want them,” Lynch said.

And even when you do, it’s still a full day of travel. She said she usually wakes up at 4:30 a.m. on days she has an appointment and usually doesn’t come home until 9:30 p.m.

She said people in her community of Island Harbor were devastated by the departure of the island’s last doctor, who practiced at the local clinic for more than a decade.

“They don’t know where to turn,” she said. “Most people say, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to have to stop and move, we’re going to have to get off Fogo Island. “”

Aaron Brown returned to Fogo Island in September to help care for his aging grandparents.

Aaron Brown returned to Fogo Island in September to help care for his family. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

He said his 79-year-old, partially paralyzed grandfather fought an infection for much of the winter and had to be hospitalized for six weeks in Grand Falls-Windsor.

“He spent the whole time in the hallway, on a bed, and eventually they put him in a family room for the rest of his stay,” he said. “I kind of knew that health care was collapsing then.”

Losing the island’s only doctor means one less support for him and raises many questions about his family’s future.

Brown says it’s just not realistic to bring his grandfather across the ferry to Gander for medical visits unless they become absolutely urgent – and that means delaying appointments for problems which should be examined.

“At this point, I’m the last line, I guess, of medical attention.”

A sinister stage

Other communities in the province are also struggling to keep their health clinics running, but residents of Fogo Island say they are particularly vulnerable.

“We realize that it’s not just us, but that we are unique because we are in the middle of the North Atlantic,” said Liz Keefe, who has lived on Fogo Island for nearly 40 years. “If we had an emergency trip one night and the ice is present, the ferry cannot move.

“I don’t know what the future will be, it’s going to be sad. We need doctors, that’s the main thing.”

Liz Keefe moved from Wales to Newfoundland and Labrador and has lived on Fogo Island for 40 years. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The doctor is expected to leave his post on June 19. Central Health says it is working with alternates to provide coverage over the summer and will update the community as their plans evolve.

Mayor Andrew Shea said this summer will be the first time since 1792 that the island has not had a resident doctor.

This is the final blow to the community, which also loses its only bank branch and a few other businesses.

And everything is happening in a context of an explosion in the tourist industry. This left some people scratching their heads.

Canadian tourists visit an iceberg that ran aground in Island Harbor on Newfoundland’s Fogo Island in April. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The famous Fogo Island Inn — a top pick for the rich and famous — charges at least $7,725 per stay ($2,575 per night for the cheapest room, with a three-night minimum). These prices do not include taxes.

“It’s a promising place,” Brown said.

“Unfortunately, the locals are leaving as the tourists arrive.”

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