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22 months after Lytton fire, planning hasn't started for rebuild of key health facility

Locals say they want their old health services back; Interior Health says it plans to consult residents this spring

Nearly two years after Lytton burned down, the local health authority still hasn’t started planning what will replace the community’s cherished health centre.

And for some remaining residents, those indecisions and delays are causing them to rethink their future in town.

While a small village, Lytton was the heart and hub of a larger region with thousands of people living in rural areas and several First Nation communities.

And among the buildings destroyed when flames ravaged the village in June of 2021 was a community health centre critical to the daily live of locals, many of whom are seniors.

The site had space for family doctors, a lab to handle bloodwork, an X-ray machine, a pharmacy, and even an emergency room where urgent issues could be addressed.

For local seniors like Nancy* and her husband, who lived just north of town, the facility allowed them to continue living on their nearby rural property, even as they required regular check-ups and care.

*We aren’t using Nancy’s real name because she hasn’t yet told her family and friends personal news revealed later in this story.

“You could go in and see a doctor in the building, he could say, you need this prescription, and you could just walk through the door from his office to the pharmacy,” Nancy said. “If the doctor deemed you need urgent care, or an X-ray or bloodwork, all of that was located nearby.”

In recent years, the BC government has rolled out new Urgent and Primary Care Centres to reduce barriers to health care in larger communities. In a way, Lytton had a UPCC before they were even invented. With multiple services under one roof, its health centre could have been a model for how services could be made accessible and easy. And for a remote community with an aging population, the health centre was vitally important.

“It was all in one building,” Nancy said. “It was wonderful.”

The health centre was located at the heart of a village that itself was the heart of a larger region.

But the fire that incinerated the centre (and all the patients’ records inside) nearly two years ago has changed all that, and left a large impact on people who remain in the area. Nancy’s home, and many others in rural areas surrounding Lytton, survived the fire. But while she and others may have felt relatively “fortunate,” when an acquaintance heard that her home had been spared and declared Nancy to be “fine,” she bristled.

Because she didn’t feel fine. The fire had stolen her community—and especially the health centre she and her husband relied upon.

Last year, the pair accumulated more than 5,000 kilometres of travel driving to and from medical appointments in the Fraser Valley or Ashcroft. When winter came and the roads got bad, Nancy’s husband put off the regular check-ups that he required because of a medical condition.

“We just kind of had to cross our fingers and hope everything was okay,” she said.

This spring, when the village conducted a survey asking its business community about their priorities, restoring Lytton’s health care services was deemed to be the single most-pressing need.

Some health services have returned: last year, primary medical services restarted and residents can see a doctor either virtually or in a building located on Lytton First Nation land north of the village.

More services are coming, according to Interior Health, the health authority responsible for care in Lytton and much of the southern Interior. Officials say the health authority plans to open a temporary medical building that will have space both for doctors and a lab that would offer “limited blood collection,” according to the health authority.

The facility has been talked about for more than a year, and the health authority had originally planned to open it this month. But it’s been opening has been delayed several months because, the health authority said, a change in location required “additional geotechnical, earthwork, and infrastructure hookups.”

Interior Health said it’s still deciding what permanent services will be offered in town, and will be undertaking a “community engagement process…over the next couple months,” according to a written statement to The Current.

A year ago, Tricia Thorpe—who was since been elected as the regional district director for her rural area—wrote a letter to Health Minister Adrian Dix a year ago after her husband suffered a heart attack. Having just heard that a neighbour waited an hour for an ambuance, she opted to driver her husband an hour north to Lillooet herself.

Before the fire, things would have been far safer, Tricia Thorpe told a reporter.

“We had an emergency centre, we had that super clot-busting drug on site. I could have run him down there, and that would have been a really simple thing.”

Thorpe is still advocating for more health care and recently spoke to an Interior Health official about their importance. She was told that Lytton could actually get more and improved services, she told The Current Tuesday.

Thorpe doesn’t think that’s likely, and is focusing on advocating for the return of what was lost.

While some people remain displaced, Thorpe said most of the region’s residents have either returned to the area, or never left in the first place. And finally, after two years of agonizing slow work, some lots in town are expected to be ready for building within just a couple months.

The Interior Health lot, one of the largest in town with a cement foundation, is one of the most ready to be built upon. But the lack of planning has Thorpe and others wondering why that consultation is only starting now—and why it’s even needed given the desire for a return of the old facility.

“Why has it taken two years to get to the consultation process? By July 1 [2021] they knew they had lost the hospital site.”

Without its former health care amenities, Thorpe worries the village itself will lose residents.

“That is the number one thing that is going to see us move forward,” she said. “Everyone wants health care.”

Nancy also doesn’t understand why there has been a delay in planning for a new permanent health centre.

“IHA knew the fire took out their Lytton facility the day of the fire and what services it provided,” Nancy said. “In my opinion they abandoned those who remained here. Now they are holding community and band meetings so they can 'study what is needed' here. We need what we had before.”

The health centre site sits in the centre of town and is owned by Interior Health. Interior Health recently told the village that it was open to leasing out the site for multiple years to allow for the building of a temporary fire hall. Mayor Denise O’Connor noted at a recent meeting that Interior Health had not yet committed to rebuilding on the site.

Council declined to lease the site from Interior Health, with Coun. Jessoa Lightfoot stressing the importance of the return of health services to the community.

“Citizens as a whole would prefer that we put pressure on [Interior Health] to speed up their reconstruction,” Lightfoot said.

For now, people like Nancy and her husband are left in a state of limbo, or considering their future.

She and her husband are planning to move to Chilliwack.

“The normal rural life? That’s all gone.”

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