Nfld. & Labrador

Bell Islanders are pulling a Grand Seduction, sort of, to lure back former family physician

Residents of Bell Island are pulling on heartstrings in an attempt to bring back a community physician. 

The N.L. community lost all three of its family physicians in 2021

Ken Kavanagh, Kara O'Keefe and Lorraine Fowler are lobbying, with the rest of Bell Island, to bring back a family physician to the community. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Residents of Bell Island in Newfoundland and Labrador are pulling on heartstrings in an attempt to bring back a family physician. 

In an effort reminiscent of The Grand Seduction — a 2013 movie in which a small Newfoundland town tries to entice a doctor to relocate there by using trickery, staged cricket matches and free money left on the community's wharf — residents are posting memories and support for Dr. Firas Ayar on Facebook to draw the doctor back to the island, which is currently without a family physician. 

Over the last year, Bell Island – which is a 20-minute ferry ride from Portugal Cove-St. Phillip's, just outside St. John's – lost all three of its family physicians and has only one doctor working in its emergency room. 

Ayar left in September.

The Bell Island Grand Seduction

6 months ago
Duration 3:53
People on Bell Island in Newfoundland and Labrador are pulling on heartstrings in an attempt to bring back a family physician.

"He had so much empathy, so much compassion and he was so ethical in what he did. He integrated himself into our community," Lorraine Fowler, 66 and a lifelong Bell Island resident, told CBC News.

"He stood by his patients. He was overworked when you look at the long hours he would put in and always greeted you with a smile."

Fowler said she was devastated by Ayar's departure but the Facebook group is a way to express how the community feels about the doctor who had served it since 2003 and to emphasize its need for another physician.

She said Bell Island is struggling without a family physician, adding many outport communities in the province are suffering the same fate. 

Lorraine Fowler says Bell Island is struggling without a community physician. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

"Eastern Health really needs to step up to this plate and ensure there's an incentive for these doctors to stay here, especially the ones who are committed to Bell Island such as Dr. Ayar," said Fowler. 

"I'm passionate about this and I hope and pray to God that Dr. Ayar does have the opportunity to come back." 

The right hand

Kara O'Keefe, a pharmacist working on Bell Island, says residents feel helpless. 

O'Keefe said the island is vulnerable because there are a lot of chronic health-care conditions such as diabetes, lung disease and high rates of heart failure among the 2,800 people on the island.

Without family doctors in the community, she said, patients are not being treated properly, risking hospitalization or even death, she said.

"Although they do have access to a physician in the emergency room, they don't have that same continuity of care. So they don't have a physician who is familiar with them or who has their family history, who knows their history and their chronic diseases."

Kara O'Keefe, the only pharmacist on Bell Island, says residents feel frustrated and helpless without family doctors in their community. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

O'Keefe said a lot of patients aren't even aware there is a physician in the emergency room and many don't know how to access primary care.

She said losing the island's physicians is like losing her right hand, as pharmacists working with physicians is an integral part of health care in rural communities. 

"I've been very used to having a physician on my team, and having that person to work with with regards to our patients and providing them with seamless care," she said.

"Every Newfoundlander and Labradorian deserves to have access to health care. Even if that access is minimal or it has been reduced, they should at least know where they can get access to care." 

Hatching a plan

Ken Kavanagh founded the Facebook group The Bell Island Grand Seduction about two weeks ago.

Since its formation the group has grown to more than 500 members with more than 700 posts from people sharing memories of Ayar and pleading with Eastern Health to find a solution.

Messages of support have been steadily rolling in.

"Dr. Ayar has been my family's doctor for almost as long as he was here. It was a truly a sad day the day that he left," one resident wrote.

"When Dr. Ayar left Bell Island, it was a tremendous loss to our community. Everyone loved the man, as he strived to go above and beyond to ensure that all his patients received the absolute best medical attention possible," wrote another.

Kavanagh said the community traditionally had three physicians, but now with zero its residents are feeling unimportant.

Ken Kavanagh has started a Facebook group to try to encourage one of the community's family physicians to return. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

"On an island community separated by three miles of the tickle, where we could be shut down for two or three days with no ferry running, we need to have a family doctor on Bell Island that's part of the team and living here," said Kavanagh. 

"I think that's the only way we're going to secure a proper and fair health care system for this community."

Kavanagh said some residents, who are friends of Ayar, have been in touch with the doctor directly. Kavanagh said he's certain Ayar wants to return. 

CBC News tried calling Ayar at his new practice, in Ontario, but was not able to reach him.

In an emailed statement, Eastern Health told CBC News it's committed to delivering "the most appropriate care to meet residents' needs" and is working to recruit primary health-care providers for Bell Island.

"Primary health-care services are being provided at the Dr. Walter Templeman Health Care Centre by a full-time nurse practitioner Monday to Friday, with some additional evening hours. Physicians and nurses are also providing 24/7 emergency room services," reads the statement.

The health authority said a second nurse practitioner is scheduled to join the Bell Island health-care team in April and recruitment is ongoing to fill three additional nurse practitioner positions.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler

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