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Cape Breton finds hope in an unexpected hero on wheels

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Sue Battersby-Campbell And Deb Blois

By: Kirsten Millar


It was over one year ago that Hurricane Fiona tore through the Maritimes, causing devastating damage to communities throughout Nova Scotia. Cape Breton was hit particularly hard, with roofs blown off buildings, downed power lines, trees uprooted, and homes flooded.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, primary care clinics and pharmacies were closed due to power outages, and the emergency departments soon became overwhelmed.

Team members from across Nova Scotia Health knew there had to be a way to support a community in need. Within a couple of days, the province’s first ever mobile primary care clinic, organized by the Nova Scotia Health Innovation Hub, was set up, and emerged as a lifeline for the people of Cape Breton. Mobile primary care clinics have been helping to bridge gaps in care ever since.

“I got a phone call when I got home from work on the afternoon of September 27th saying, ‘can you start driving to Sydney, Cape Breton?’” said Sue Battersby-Campbell, Nurse Practitioner. “The next morning, I started driving at 5 a.m. from Halifax. I thought to myself, yes, we were affected, a tree came down here and took out our power stack. But I knew that they got hit even worse up there, and I was happy to help.”

Deborah Blois, Nurse Practitioner from Hants County, got the same call and knew she had to help. “I was really busy at the time, but I was on the road to Cape Breton by 5 a.m. the next morning. It was a crazy drive getting there on the 28th – power lines were down on the road and I was just hoping I would be able to get gas for my car. The location for the clinic wasn’t even finalized until I arrived in Cape Breton.” 

The mobile clinic included a main trailer and several tents where patients were seen. Some patients were even examined right in their cars when they were physically unable to get out.

Battersby-Campbell and Blois worked alongside a team to ensure patients got the care they needed. “We all had areas of expertise and collaborated with one another,” said Blois. “There was an energy at the clinic that helped keep us going. The energy came from working with a team of dedicated, caring professionals, and managers who cared about the needs of the community and the needs of staff. It really does take a team; not one health care provider is more important than the other.”

The mobile clinic saw many patients for upper respiratory issues such as COVID, cold, and flu, as well as prescription renewals and mental health issues.

“One of the main issues we saw at the mobile clinic was stress. Many people experienced increased depression and anxiety due to the hurricane,” said Blois.

“I saw five ruptured eardrums, which I've never seen in my career. I don't know if that was hurricane related with the barometer dropping, but it was quite remarkable. Some people also had injuries from attempting to clean up trees and damage. We saw chainsaw injuries that needed suturing,” added Battersby-Campbell.

The clinic was set up close to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, and they relied on each other to treat patients when appropriate. Non-emergency patients were directed to the mobile clinic, and a handful of more serious cases were sent from the clinic to the emergency department.

Blois estimates that the mobile clinic saw 400 patients during their time in Cape Breton. “The patients we saw, even though they were in dire straits, were very kind and thankful for the care they received,” she said. “We gave them hope.”

A statement that Battersby-Campbell echoed. “I think the biggest thing was the symbol of us being there. It let them know that Nova Scotia cares. It provided hope to the community,” she added.

Since stepping up at the first mobile clinic, Blois and Battersby-Campbell have worked at a number of them. “I've been all over the place. We see a lot of patients and we can take care of their primary care needs. It’s been very rewarding,” said Blois. 

To learn more about mobile primary care clinics, click here.