Dodging traffic

Parksville woman tells a scary story about her trouble accessing the new Oceanside Health Centre; MLA Stilwell says fix coming soon

Suzan Jennings

Suzan Jennings says she felt like she was risking her life to get some blood work done at the new Oceanside Health Centre (OHC).

And she’s hoping accessibility issues can be worked out before someone gets hurt.

Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell says changes are in the works now to make the situation safer.

Jennings, who uses a powered wheelchair she calls her “Mercedes,”  was in downtown Parksville last week and needed to get to the OHC. After calling the regional transit authority, Jennings learned she had to catch the 88 bus to get to the OHC. She wheeled herself to the bus stop in front of city hall, boarded the 88 and got off at the stop closest to the OHC.

Things got dicey from there.

The closest bus stop to the OHC — the availability and frequency of the specialized HandyDart system will be explored further in this story, but Jennings says it has much to be desired — is almost a kilometre from the front doors of the OHC. The stop is blocks in from the Alberni Highway and on the opposite side of the street from the OHC.

What’s worse, Jennings wasn’t quite sure where she was going, and she says the bus driver instructed her to head to the highway and head west (up toward Coombs). She powered to the highway — passing the Trillium Lodge and OHC signage that wasn’t clear to her — and took her chances on the gravel-strewed shoulder of Highway 4A.

She got close to the health centre when she noticed some work crews to her right on the OHC grounds.

“Below me there were several workmen so a quick whistle from me and all eyes were upon the crazy woman in the power wheelchair on the highway trying to access the Oceanside Health Centre,” Jennings wrote in an e-mail to The NEWS. “They waved me back toward Despard and yelled ‘be careful’.”

So, back down the gravel-laden shoulder went Jennings in her Mercedes, on to Despard and then left into where she now saw was a driveway to both Trillium and the OHC. Things didn’t get much better from there.

There’s no sidewalk from Despard to the OHC front doors, and it has quite the incline. Jennings had to dodge cars coming, going and parking.

“It seems that people get quite territorial when they are looking for parking spaces and it did not matter that there was a woman in a power chair trying to get to the front door and I could bloody-well wait,” Jennings wrote in her e-mail.

“I got honked at cuz I was going too slow,” Jennings said in an interview Sunday. “Cars were coming and going and backing up — everybody is in a hurry.”

Jennings eventually got into the centre and said the staff there were understanding and had heard similar stories from others who were trying to access the OHC.

Jennings has been a director on the Oceanside Accessibility Committee for two months. She said she spoke to Parksville city council’s liaison to the committee, Coun. Mark Lefebvre, last week about her scary ride and she said he raised the issue with council and the regional transit authority.

“They are looking into it,” Jennings said on Sunday. “The first step in getting anything done is to recognize there’s a problem.”

The Handydart system in the Parksville Qualicum Beach region will take someone right into the loop right in front of the OHC doors, but it only operates Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and one must book it days in advance.

“With only really having one-and-a-half Handydart buses for the Oceanside area, it is clear that the infrastructure has not caught up to developments of our new medical centre,” Jennings wrote in her e-mail. “It is very obvious that the people that decided to build the Oceanside Health Centre, on the Alberni Highway, far from the downtown core, did not think how people would get there. We desperately require the transit bus to make a loop into the parking lot of the facility and then back out again. For the few minutes it would take, it could possibly save a life.”

Stilwell is the parliamentary secretary to the minister of health for healthy living, and a Paralympics gold medalist. The NEWS sent Stilwell a copy of Jennings’ e-mail Sunday morning, asking for comment.

“It (the OHC and access to it) is a work in progress,” Stilwell said Monday morning before heading into the legislature for her first official vote (the budget) as an MLA.

Stilwell said the RDN increased the HandyDart service in March and she said as far as the big bus is concerned, within the next couple of weeks the stop will be moved closer to the OHC and there will be a switchback-like walkway installed from Despard up the incline to the OHC doors.