British Columbia·Photos

Roving dental practice on Hornby, Denman islands seeks new owner after 3 decades

In 1986 Peter Walford began living his dream of operating the only dental practice on Denman and Hornby islands out of a converted school bus. He's now edging towards retirement and looking for a successor: "I’m hoping someone will come along and say 'This looks like a lot of fun, it’s what I want to do' and take it over from me."

Peter Walford began treating patients in a converted school bus in 1986

Dr. Peter Walford, left, stands with his wife Robin, and the mobile dental clinic on Hornby Island which is the second bus he customized to do dentistry on the islands located off the east coast of central Vancouver Island. (Peter Walford)

Dr. Peter Walford has been on the road, so to speak, for more than 30 years doing dentistry on B.C.'s Hornby and Denman islands from an unusual clinic.

After owning several practices on Vancouver Island through the 1980s, he explored converting a Blue Bird school bus into a mobile dental clinic to bring dentistry to the two islands located in the Salish Sea southeast of Courtenay-Comox. 

"It was pretty unique that there was this one opening — two islands that weren't serviced," he said.

The entrance to Dr. Peter Walford's mobile clinic on Hornby Island. (Peter Walford)

Walford is now on his second bus, which he spent four years perfecting with custom-made wood finishing, in the mid-1990s.

"An uneconomic amount of time," he said about not rushing to finish the clinic, but doing it because he loved the idea and the work.

Since then he's spent three days a week in the spring, summer and fall working with about 800 active patients on both islands, parking the bus in several spots where he can hook up water, electricity and telephone lines.

There's no fancy aquarium on Dr. Peter Walford's mobile dental clinic, but he has some features found in most dental offices including magazines. (Peter Walford)

The B.C. Dental Association estimates that there's only a handful of mobile dental operations like Walford's in the province.

The bus has a waiting area, a library, two dental chairs and is adorned with thousands of buttons on the ceiling.

He began placing them there with magnets after a patient complained that a poster of a wilderness scene on the ceiling wasn't engaging enough to keep patients' minds off a buzzing drill.

The waiting and reception area on Dr. Peter Walford's converted school bus that he operates as a mobile dental clinic. (Peter Walford)

Patients like Bill Engleson say the buttons, most of which have been given to Walford, are worth a visit to the bus.

"It's a kitschy kind of thing in that almost the entire ceiling is covered in buttons, protest buttons, historical buttons, going back 50 years," said the Denman Island resident. "No matter where you are you can be entertained quite easily."

Dr. Peter Walford works with a patient on his mobile dental clinic on Hornby Island. He estimates there are about 2,500 buttons stuck to the ceiling. (Peter Walford)

Amanda Hale has been a patient of Walford's since 1989 and says he's creative in his approach to dentistry. Getting her teeth fixed in a bus doesn't faze her.

"It's very cozy," she said. "Going into the bus I didn't feel like I would going into that rather more clinical atmosphere of a traditional dentist."

In the early days, Walford would even trade for service. Once Hale traded some knitting wool for dental work. Later Walford wore a sweater made of the wool, knitted by another patient.

The path to the islands

Walford lives on Hornby Island but grew up in Hudson, Quebec. He became a dentist at 28 and moved West.

For a time he lived in Vancouver on a boat in False Creek while doing dentistry and teaching at the University of British Columbia.

A chance bike trip to Duncan resulted in him buying a practice there. Eventually he moved to a practice in Cumberland where patients from Hornby and Denman islands came for dentistry. That's where the idea of a mobile clinic took hold.

Dr. Peter Walford, seen here in July 2019, says doing dentistry from the bus on two Salish Sea Islands has been the most satisfying practice he's been involved in as a dentist. (Amy O'Brian/CBC)

Walford says he's proud of the bus as a clinic and enjoys all the relationships he's made with patients over the years.

"They're very, very friendly for me and keep my stress level very low and my energy up," he said.

Dr. Peter Walford spent four years customizing this 40-year-old school bus into his mobile dental clinic. (Peter Walford/CBC)

Now the 71-year-old is looking to sell the clinic to another dentist. He admits it's not an especially lucrative practice, but it's unique and affords a tremendous quality of life, although a quieter one.

"You have a lot of free time ... if you wanted to pursue other things," he said.  "And let me tell you the chair-side work is really rewarding."

Dr. Peter Walford has several spots where he parks his bus to do dentistry on both Denman and Hornby Islands. (Amy O'Brian/CBC)

With files from Amy O'Brian

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