Thursday, December 2, 2021

Letter: The gutting of a community institution


The people of Wallaceburg built Sydenham District Hospital in the late 1950’s to serve the health care needs of the burgeoning community. Building the hospital was a community effort – the land was donated and almost everyone in town was somehow involved in making the dream of having a state of the art health care facility in their town come true.

The hospital was maintained by the community over the next 40 years and served Wallaceburg well. Generations of Wallaceburg residents were born and died in the hospital. It was an integral part of the community and something that was always talked about with great pride by the local people.

I moved to Wallaceburg in 1985 to accept the position of editor at the Wallaceburg News, the town’s longstanding weekly newspaper. I covered many events at the hospital over the first few years I lived in town and quickly learned that it was a special place.

Proof of that came in 1988 when it was learned that too much frugality by hospital administration had let the facility slip into physical decline. A delegation of concerned citizens visited me in my office at the News to express grave concern over the situation – the hospital was in danger of losing its accreditation unless a large number of improvements could be made and made quickly.

So, the community that had built the hospital now had the task of securing its future. A fundraising committee was formed and the work of raising $2 million in a community of 10,000 people was begun. It was like when the hospital was built – everyone in the community got involved. Not only was the money raised, volunteers sewed drapes, painted and did all manner of things to refurbish Sydenham District Hospital.

I served on the fundraising committee as media advisor. I remember getting a call from a local Beaver Troop’s leader. The young boys had raised $50 by collecting bottles and would like to donate it to the hospital fund. Would the committee be interested in such a small gift? We accepted that gift and any other, large or small, and ended up raising $2.4 million – enough to secure the hospital’s accreditation and $400,000 extra for future needs.

This excellent community institution was amalgamated with two hospitals in nearby Chatham under the Mike Harris government. As the media advisor to the hospital board, I advised against cooperating with the amalgamation. I felt that if SDH was amalgamated into the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance – the new name for the amalgamated hospitals – it would only be a matter of time before the Wallaceburg hospital would disappear into the Chatham structure.

As it happened, the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance has almost totally neglected the Wallaceburg facility, with the result that it is now in terrible shape. Shame, shame on the Health Alliance. You were given the almost sacred trust of looking after SDH for the people of Wallaceburg, and you have absolutely and totally failed. You have violated the trust.

Today, the people of Wallaceburg are still fighting for their hospital after almost 20 years of being under siege and facing cuts to services and the loss of one department after another. Today, there are five active care beds left at the hospital ….it is virtually an empty shell, its guts ripped out while the community has watched, seemingly helpless.

When Wallaceburg resident and Chatham-Kent Councillor Jeff Wesley recently put out a call for letters of support for the hospital, I wrote him one. I told him that SDH should be immediately withdraw from the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance and should make its own future, whether to live or die. Any other outcome would result in the permanent and complete closure of the hospital anyway.

Recently, a person close to me was terminally ill. She was a resident of Wallaceburg and that’s where her family lives. But while she lay dying, her family was forced to drive back and forth to Chatham after long hours under extreme stress. I sadly remembered that the Sydenham District Hospital Auxiliary had donated three completely furnished palliative care rooms at SDH. They are now gone, along with everything else of value in the hospital.

Some people say the Ministry of Health set out to close the hospital….some people say it’s the nasty people of Chatham. Whatever, it’s a tragic story and one I feel badly about. If there was any justice or any fairness left in the system, Sydenham District Hospital would somehow be saved. It’s unlikely but is something surely worth fighting for.

– Submitted by John Gardiner, Wallaceburg


  1. Thankyou for that beautiful letter about the hospital of Wallaceburg…I lived in Walllaceburg for alot of years,I raised my children there. My children were born in the hospital,I hope everyday that by the grace of God, that Wallaceburg hospital will become strong again

  2. I am from the Wallaceburg area, Forhan Street extension to be exact, now living in the Niagara region. Wallaceburg is and always will be “home” to me. That’s where I went to school and married. My first child was born at the Syndemham District Hospital. In fact my youngest brother was born there in 1957, the only one of 7 children of our family to be born there. The rest of us were born in Chatham because that was the closest hospital at the time. I remember my parents saying how happy it was when the hospital opened in Wallaceburg. My parents both died in that hospital. If we had to drive back and forth during their palliative time, we could have been killed on the 40 highway as many have been. I am a Registered Nurse and know what the LINNs have done to many community hospitals all across Ontario. Their foresight was to reduce Administrative costs between hospitals but that never came to be. None wanted to give up their inflated salaries. Instead we saw the closure of so many needed hospitals, for example Fort Erie. Yes, Niagara Falls has a hospital, but in winter the highways are usually closed because of the snow leaving people to go over the river to Buffalo and added costs. Small communities across Ontario have paid the price and it’s time to put an end to this butchery!

  3. Enjoyed your thoughts, and perspective in this article. My grandfather donated that land, and my father practiced medicine in that hospital throughout his career. It is an utter shame what has happened to that place, over the last 20 years. As a current landowner across the street from the hospital, I can only imagine what is to come. I think if my father, and grandfather were still alive – they would be in pure disgust as to what has become of the facility that was supposed to help and protect the people of wallaceburg.

    Best wishes,
    Scott Martin

  4. I was born in this hospital in 1959! As were so many others..if i was to ever win a significant amount of money i would definitely donate it to keeping this hospital going. If everyone gave 100.00 just bc for one month as a one tim gift offering of their budget. We could get this hospital back. Yo
    u did it once wallaceburg…you can do it again.

  5. Very well written John. We need our hospital here. I as well as many cannot see our beautiful town without one. Wallaceburg has been fighting for so long let’s not give up the fight .

  6. My youngest brother was born at SDH. Several relatives including myself received exemplary care having stayed in SDH. My mother received the best care and attention during her stay in Palliative. As more and more people are looking to retire in and around Wallaceburg, it is of the upmost importance to have a care facility close. It is one of the deciding factors to retire anywhere. Let’s keep it going! More fundraisers perhaps? I am more than happy to contribute!

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