After-hours clinic supports patients, helps local ER

by | Sep 19, 2023

Dr. Debi O’Leary lessens emergency room burden while honouring late sister

When Woodstock-area family physician Dr. Debi O’Leary decided to start an after-hours clinic in Canterbury this spring, she had two primary goals: take some pressure off the Upper River Valley Hospital’s emergency room and honour her late sister, Tania Sharp. Despite undergoing a Stem Cell Transplant, with Dr. O’Leary as her donor, Sharp died in April 2022.

“My sister was diagnosed (with Stage 4 Myelofibrosis, a form of cancer) too late. That was during COVID-19 when many people were being urged not to go to the ER because hospitals were overwhelmed. For me, doing something meaningful is how I deal with grief,” said O’Leary. “I needed to do something. I felt like this was the best way to honour her.”

O’Leary’s clinic, which began in April after Lakeland Ridges municipal council approved using the Canterbury Community Centre, operates on Tuesday evenings.

“The response has been overwhelming,” O’Leary explained. “We can see upwards of 33 patients some evenings, and the issues are varied.”

O’Leary has seen patients with serious conditions that some have been putting off due to COVID or because they don’t have a family doctor.

“I’ve seen people here without family physicians, others who need follow-up care, to people who need driver’s physicals,” she said.

Many patients have come from the surrounding communities, but O’Leary has also seen patients who live in Sussex, Grand Falls, and Oromocto.

“Over the last few years during COVID,” said O’Leary, “some people have deferred medical care, sometimes for serious conditions.”

Her work in Lakeland Ridges is making an impact on more than the individual health of patients. Her Tuesday clinics also play an essential role in supporting healthcare colleagues.

“When I stopped doing obstetrics (at the Upper River Valley Hospital or URVH) last fall, there was a shortage of ER doctors. Family physicians were asked to take 12-hour shifts, but I can’t do those shifts anymore, but I still wanted to help.”

Two years ago, O’Leary moved from Woodstock to Skiff Lake. On her drive home one evening, she got the idea for the clinic in her new municipality.

“I approached Mayor Tanya Cloutier about setting up in Canterbury, and she was all for it.”

After getting council approval, Dr. O’Leary gathered all the furniture and supplies needed and brought some staff along to help, including a third-year Dalhousie University resident, Dr. Nick Byers.

The River Valley Sun sent a request to Horizon Health, asking to speak with URVH Chief of Staff Dr. Gurpreet Singh Ranger about the impact O’Leary’s clinic has had on the URVH Emergency Department, but did not respond before our deadline.

Horizon Health recently posted a story on its website, applauding the clinic and the work Dr. O’Leary is doing in the community, calling it a “heartwarming initiative” that is “transforming access to health care in the region while honouring a personal memory.”

Lakeland Ridges Mayor Tanya Cloutier says having an after-hours clinic in her region is a game changer for residents.

“To be able to offer a service like this with someone of Dr. O’Leary’s calibre in a small rural community is something I hardly dared to dream of when I was elected.”

“For me,” said Dr. O’Leary, “it’s about offering health care to those who may not have easy access to services,” O’Leary emphasized.

“If I can help just one person get an early diagnosis, which didn’t happen for my sister, then it’ll be worth it.”

O’Leary continues to honour her late sister, most recently with a 15 km swim challenge for the Canadian Cancer Society, raising $3,000 in August.

Dr. Debi O’Leary opened the after-hours clinic in Canterbury to help the URVH Emergency Room and to honour her late sister, Tania Sharp. (Submitted)

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