‘All we need is a plug-in and a sink’: B.C. helicopter charity delivers health care to remote Canada

Imagine your dentist arriving to help you via chopper. That is the aim of Helicopters Without Borders (HWB), a registered charity in B.C. specializing in bringing health care to remote communities, the sort of places you can only access quickly by air or water.

CTV National News took off from Vancouver International Airport with a team from HWB on Tuesday to see their work firsthand. The destination: Xa’xtsa or Douglas First Nation.

The weather was nasty, and after an hours-long delay, the team landed in the tiny village of Tipella at the north end of Harrison Lake, knowing the power had been out all day. They brought a generator, along with a mobile dental clinic.

“We fly in, unbox everything and build the clinic in any space possible,” says Cam Robson, a mobile dentist who collaborates with the charity. “All we need is a plug-in and a sink to do this.”

Tipella is a five-hour round trip by logging road to the nearest city. Going to the dentist or the doctor is an all-day affair and can sometimes involve a hotel stay – a journey some in the community of 120 cannot afford to make.

“A lot of community members don’t have sufficient vehicles, and some who do have a vehicle basically can’t afford insurance and stuff,” Chief Don Harris told CTV News.

Cam Robson, a mobile dentist who collaborates with Helicopters Without Borders, sets up a clinic in Tipella, B.C. (CTV News)

Several of the patients Robson and his assistant Rosie Walker saw Tuesday and Wednesday were children, some of whom associate the dentist with early nightmarish experiences tied to the travel and trauma around how they were treated outside of their community. That was the case for Vanessa Linger’s 11-year-old daughter Zoe, before Robson worked his magic.

“As they explained everything, you could see her relaxing a bit. It was nice to witness that,” said Vanessa, who is grateful for this kind of care within the community.

“It is a lot of help. Her school starts at nine, I pulled her out at 9:15, and she’s already back in school by 10. She had a spelling test today, so she’s not going to miss that now,” mom said with a smile, before taking a seat in Robson’s chair herself.

Helicopters Without Borders was co-founded in 2020 by its pilot, Owen McClung-Sitnam. He was inspired by his father, who also works in aviation, and by his uncle, who worked in the non-profit sector for decades.

Chief Don Harris of Xa’xtsa or Douglas First Nation. (CTV News)

“I was looking for a way to marry the two, the non-profit world and aviation,” McClung-Sitnam said.

Four years later, the charity has delivered food, vaccines, medical equipment and entire care teams to multiple communities. “We’ll bring in a team of clinical workers ranging from mental health, physicians, dentists and harm reduction,” McClung-Sitnam added.

It is a model he sees as the future of providing care to remote areas. “The vision is everyone in British Columbia, no matter their geographic location, has access to basic health.”

HWB operates with both private and public funding. It is looking to increase its visibility to generate new partnerships and expand service.

“When we started HWB, just to get us going, I said yes to everything,” McClung-Sitnam said. “That was a learning curve. Now we have to say no, because we’re still a small team. We just don’t have the capacity.”

The team on the ground in Tipella this week saw 15 patients before packing everything back into the chopper after a roughly 24-hour stay. They will return in three months, hoping to build on the relationships they’ve built with patients, which may eventually lead to a lifetime of improved care. 

#plugin #sink #B.C #helicopter #charity #delivers #health #care #remote #Canada

Leave a Comment