During the tenth diversion of emergency department services at the Nicola Valley Hospital since the beginning of this year, residents of the valley gathered on the hospital’s green space to rally against what many see as a lack of provincial action on the issue.

About 50 Merrittonians and other Nicola Valley residents attended what was unofficially dubbed a Rally for Healthcare on Easter Sunday (April 9) amidst a 12 hour closure of the Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency department. The hospital’s ER has been closed ten times in 2023, with the diversions increasing in frequency since they became common last year. 

“The people of Merritt have had enough, we just want this to be solved,” said Georgia Clement, an organizer of the rally. 

“If one of us gets hurt and requires an emergency room, we need to drive another 90 or 120 kilometres away from this area. Someone may need to be stabilized before they spend that time on the highway, and that could cause someone a life or death situation. It’s just a matter of time here.”

Interior Health Authority (IHA) recently told the Herald that staff recruitment and retention efforts for the Nicola Valley Hospital are ongoing, with the closures being a last resort measure to address staffing shortages caused by the overall vacancies, short-notice sick calls, and vacation time. Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz has called for an investigation into the source of the closures, but the health authority has not announced their intentions to complete such an investigation. 

Goetz also recently confirmed to local media that he had received a call from provincial Minister of Health, Adrian Dix, and had a conversation regarding the hospital’s situation. Goetz said the minister provided him assurances that his team was tracking the issue and actively working toward solutions for it. Rally organizers said there are ways to address the problem, which has wide spreading effects.

“There’s a community here that thrives on the outdoors, there’s a community here that has a lot of high risk jobs, and that emergency room is busy,” added Clement.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore, it has to stop. There’s ways to stop it, IHA pays their CEO $441,000, you’d think maybe she could come up with some answers for us.”

Clement noted that she plans to continue the rallies until a permanent solution is found, pledging to get “more organized and loud,” and already planning the next protest. She also said the rally was in support of Dr. Robert Granger, a Merritt-based trauma surgeon currently working at Vancouver’s Royal Columbian Hospital, who was told by IHA he did not meet the requirements to cover shifts in the Nicola Valley’s ER. A number of rally attendees proclaimed their support for Granger.

Among attendees was a retired Nicola Valley family doctor who called for a greater focus on the ‘care’ aspect of healthcare.

“Medical care has changed, and I can’t call it care anymore,” said Dr. Robert Holmes, a rally attendee and retired physician who practiced in the Nicola Valley from 1975-2000. 

“They call it Canadian healthcare, but it’s actually that nobody cares anymore. The care has gone out of Canadian healthcare, and we have a massive bureaucracy. This is the greatest problem in healthcare, and B.C. is a part of it.” 

Holmes noted that during his time as a physician in the province, which began in Prince Rupert in 1966, government bureaucracy has strangled healthcare in rural settings, citing the nearby Ashcroft Urgent and Primary Care Centre as an example. The small community’s ER has suffered similar closures over the past number of years.

The only way to change, according to Holmes, is through public demonstration and collaboration between different groups in the Nicola Valley.

“There has to be a massive change, and massive change only comes around with civil disobedience,” noted Holmes.

“This is what I hope we are starting today. People are starting to show that they are physically concerned by coming out. My big disappointment is that there are not enough Indigenous people with us here today. They have to be involved, because it involves them. We hear too much about the ‘Merritt Hospital,’ when it’s not, it’s a Nicola Valley Hospital that looks after 16,000-17,00 people who are residents.”

Although IHA stated that Sunday’s closure was caused by nursing shortages, many rally attendees showed their support for Dr. Robert Granger as a possible solution to the diversions, as doctor shortages have forced the department’s closure previously. 

Holmes noted that he views the denial of Granger’s request to cover shifts in Merritt’s emergency department as the act of an authoritarian regime, with the decision affecting thousands of residents. 

“All the changes that have happened here in this hospital have been done without any consultation with the people of Merritt and the Nicola Valley,” claimed Holmes.

Myra Ireland, a resident of the Nicola Valley, told the Herald that she fell and inured face to the point of needing stitches during the last ER’s last closure, but refused the offered ambulance transport to Kamloops in fear of taking the seat over someone else in more critical condition. Ireland noted that she believes while the choice was her own to make, she should never have had to make it at all.

Ireland’s situation is similar to many who live in Merritt and the surrounding area, with other protestors sharing their concerns over the lack of access to emergency healthcare services without driving close to 100 kilometres.

“It just makes me worry, because I live a small distance outside of town, so this is the closest hospital for me,” said Lolann, another Nicola Valley resident attending the rally. “It’s important to be able to able to depend on our healthcare system that we rely on to keep us safe.”

Rally organizers said they plan to gather again on Saturday (April 15) at 2p.m. at Central Park, and more regularly until the issue is permanently addressed.