‘All we need is a plug and a sink’: British Columbia charity helicopter provides health services in remote areas of Canada

Imagine your dentist coming to help you by helicopter. That’s the goal of Helicopters Without Borders (HWB), a British Columbia-registered charity specializing in providing health services to remote communities, places you can only quickly access by air or sea .

CTV National News took off from Vancouver International Airport on Tuesday with a team from HWB to see their work first-hand. The destination: Xa’xtsa or Douglas First Nation.

The weather was bad and after hours of delay the team landed in the small village of Tipella at the north end of Harrison Lake, learning that the power had been out all day. They brought generators and mobile dental clinics.

“We flew in, unpacked everything and set up clinics where possible,” said Cam Robson, a traveling dentist who works for the charity. “All we need is a plug-in and a sink to do this.”

Tipella is a five-hour round trip by highway to the nearest town. Going to the dentist is an all-day activity and sometimes requires staying in a hotel — a trip many residents of the 120-person community cannot afford.

“Many members of the community do not have adequate vehicles, and some who do have them can hardly afford insurance, etc. “, Chief Don Harris told CTV News.

Cam Robson, a traveling dentist working for Helicopters Without Borders, opens clinic in Tipella, British Columbia (CTV News)

Some of the patients Robson and his assistant Rosie Walker saw on Tuesday and Wednesday were children, some of whom the dentist associates with bad early experiences related to travel and trauma from how they were treated outside their community. That’s exactly what happened to Vanessa Linger’s 11-year-old daughter Zoe before Robson worked his magic.

“When they explained everything, you could see him relax a little. “It’s nice to see that,” said Vanessa, who was grateful for this kind of public concern.

“It’s very helpful. His school starts at nine, I picked him up at 9:15 and he was back at school at 10. He took a spelling test today, so he won’t miss it now,” Mom said with a smile before sitting down in Robson’s chair.

Helicopters Without Borders was co-founded in 2020 by its pilot Owen McClung-Sitnam. He was inspired by his father, who also worked in aviation, and his uncle, who worked in the nonprofit sector for decades.

Chief Don Harris of the Xa’xtsa or Douglas First Nation. (CTV News)

“I was looking for a way to marry the two, the nonprofit world and the aviation world,” McClung-Sitnam said.

Four years later, the association has delivered food, vaccines, medical equipment and entire healthcare teams to communities. “We will bring in a team of clinical workers from mental health, physicians, dentists and harm reduction,” added McClung-Sitnam.

This is the model he sees as the future of health service delivery in remote areas. “The vision is that every person in British Columbia, regardless of geographic location, has access to basic health care. »

HWB operates with private and public funding. They seek to increase their visibility to generate new partnerships and expand their services.

“When we started HWB, just to get started, I said yes to everything,” McClung-Sitnam said. “It was a learning experience. Now we have to say no, because we are still a small team. We simply don’t have the capacity.

Tipella’s team examined 15 patients this week before returning them all to the helicopter after a stay of about 24 hours. They will return in three months, hoping to solidify the relationships they have built with patients, which could ultimately lead to better care across the lifespan.

Polly Ferguson

"Freelance communicator. Hardcore web practitioner. Entrepreneur. Total student. Beer ninja."

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