The word "epic" is used all too casually and frequently in Whistler. But the term's traditional meaning, as in Homer's epic tale of Ulysses and the cast of thousands encountered on his journey, applies to the story that concludes tomorrow at the Whistler Health Care Centre.

At 11 a.m. Friday a new, state-of-the-art CT scanner will be officially unveiled. How it got there is a story that involves many characters - champions, foot soldiers, fallen soldiers and heroes. There were battles that ended in victory and battles that ended in defeat. There were moral dilemmas. There was great sacrifice and inspiration, and there was mischief from the gods. But ultimately, Ulysses came home.

The story, like most these days, also involves the Olympics. GE, a major Olympic sponsor, announced last year it would donate a new 64-slice scanner to VANOC as an Olympic legacy. And VANOC, in turn, donated the scanner to the Whistler Health Care Centre. That's a huge, generous commitment to the people of the Sea to Sky corridor and all those who visit here. But as Lisa Richardson makes clear in this week's feature story, that generous donation, and a gross underestimate of construction costs by Vancouver Coastal Health, complicated the whole project.

The CT scanner fundraising campaign began in 2006 but it was preceded by several years of lobbying to get to "go." Discussions about improving the diagnostic capability of the health system in the corridor actually began in 2004. The emergency clinics in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton first had to be converted to teleradialogy - digitized X-ray images that could be transferred electronically. That meant the health care foundations in the three communities had to raise $200,000.

Then the case had to be made that Whistler was the best place in the corridor for a CT scanner.

But by April of 2007 the fundraising target of $1.27 million - the entire capital cost of a used scanner and the building to house it - had been reached. At that point Vancouver Coastal Health advised that their preliminary budget was way off. The new target was closer to $2.3 million.

Additional private donations and a commitment of more than $700,000 by the Sea to Sky Regional Hospital District made up the shortfall. Garry Watson, vice chair of the Whistler Health Care Foundation, was instrumental in securing the hospital district's additional contribution by demonstrating how it could be done without affecting the rate of taxation.

The story of the CT scanner also demonstrates at a local level some of the pressures our health care system is facing. For many years now, virtually every hospital or health care centre has had a health care foundation in place, because even in the best of times provincial governments can't afford to fund 100 per cent of the capital cost of major new medical equipment. Health care foundations help make up the balance through fundraising efforts. Marnie Simon, chair of the Whistler Health Care Foundation, has been the driving, unwavering force behind the CT scanner.

But capital costs are only one part of the equation. Governments across Canada have been warning for years how health care is consuming greater and greater percentages of every budget. And aging baby boomers and rising obesity rates are only increasing the strain on the health care system.

The Whistler Health Care Centre is a diagnostic and treatment facility. It is not a hospital and is not open 24 hours a day. Given that demands for health care funding exceed available funds, it probably never will be.

But the Whistler Health Care Centre is a special case. Measured by volume of patients and by trauma acuity seen at the centre, Whistler is comparable to a medium sized hospital.

Because so many of the patients are from out-of-province, the Whistler Health Care Centre also brings in far more revenue than most facilities. In other words, it's contributing financially to the health care system.

It's not easy to bring attention to these points in a massive system where much of the attention is, rightfully, on major hospitals in the Lower Mainland. But it was done.

The story behind the CT scanner is one of perseverance, dedication and selflessness. Many people were involved and many more will need to be involved in the future to ensure health care for people living in and visiting the corridor continues to meet expectations.




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