Nanaimo Regional General Hospital has been making people better for 60 years, and it’s hoped that its best health care is still to come.
The hospital on Dufferin Crescent opened in January of 1963, and in 2023, it’s home to Vancouver Island’s busiest emergency room. During the five years leading up to the pandemic, it operated at 101-105-per cent capacity. Approximately 1,200 babies are born there every year. The hospital is ever-changing to keep up with a growing and aging population amid a health-care system in crisis, and as NRGH turns 60, it could use a check-up and some significant care.
“As the population in our region grows, the needs of the hospital grow with it,” said Barney Ellis-Perry, CEO of the Nanaimo and District Hospital Foundation, in a press release. “With the phenomenal support of our communities, we are heading into NRGH’s seventh decade with a comprehensive fundraising plan to support the increasing medical needs of our communities.”
Nanaimo General Hospital, as it was initially called, cost $4 million to build. An advertisement for the hospital in the Nanaimo Daily Free Press stated the project was necessary to relieve overcrowding at the old Machleary Street site and trumpeted the new hospital’s 200 beds, modern pediatric department with playrooms for children, modern diagnostic equipment and washroom facilities in all rooms.
Roberta Miller, a past president of the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital Auxiliary, was a patient in the old Machleary hospital as a child, and remembers it being a high-ceilinged and dark place, and so the big windows and brand-new feel of the new hospital made an impression on her.
“It was fabulous,” she said. “It was shiny and bright and new.”
Her mother was a hospital auxiliary president in the 1970s, and Miller remembers there were always fundraising events to be planned and organized, such as craft sales, spring teas and fancy-dress balls. When Miller became president in 2004, some of the fundraisers had changed but the need remained – the auxiliary always had a wish list of projects and patient care and comfort items it wanted to provide, specialty beds and wheelchairs, for example. Patients would say thanks for the little things – little fabric chicks with easter chocolates inside, or little stockings with candy canes – and perhaps take for granted some of the important medical equipment that the auxiliary and the foundation helped provide to the hospital over the years.
NRGH saw expansion in 1974, with the opening of the rehabilitation wing, and in 1997, when the ambulatory care wing opened. A surgical suite was opened in 2005 and the perinatal/neonatal intensive care unit opened in 2007.
The latest project is a $42-million intensive care unit. The foundation has already started fundraising for a $15-million high-acuity unit, one of four Nanaimo Regional Hospital District priorities pertaining to NRGH, with the others being a $1-billion patient tower, a $10-million cardiac catheterization lab and a $500-million cancer clinic.
“I think [the 60th anniversary] is meaningful, if nothing else, to point out the fact that the facility is that old,” said Ian Thorpe, hospital district chairperson. “Considering the tremendous growth that our city and region has undergone in recent years, to be blunt, the facility is no longer up to the size or standards that we would like it to be to serve our citizens.”
Despite the pressures on the system, the health care that’s happened inside NRGH has been exemplary, said Thorpe. He hears complaints about a shortage of walk-in clinics, lack of access to family doctors and hardships in travelling to Victoria for certain kinds of care, but hears nothing but compliments about the hospital’s operations and the health services it provides.
“People are overwhelmed by the dedication they see of the workers at the hospital under some pretty demanding situations, especially during COVID,” he said.
Miller, in addition to her auxiliary volunteering, also volunteered directly at NRGH for 20 years at the information desk, and saw up close how things changed. She said health-care workers and staff have always been under pressure, but said the demands have only seemed to ramp up over the years.
“The hospital was overcapacity always, and they always found somewhere to put a patient, even if it was in a corner, they somehow managed to do that, they looked after them, knew they were there. It might not have been ideal for any of them, but they did it,” she said.