Those who live in Winnipeg and receiving ongoing treatment for critical illnesses at large city hospitals are just a short drive to and from the care they need.
Not so for rural and northern Manitobans who can live many hours — one way — away.
In the early 2000s a Brandon-area single mother found herself isolated and far from her family while battling cancer and shuttling through hotel rooms as she received treatment in the provincial capital.
She was very ill but told her oncology nurses the worst part of all was being lonely and unable to have her three-year-old son and mother with her.
It was not the first time the nurses had heard such a plea. She didn’t live to see it but her plea — and vision for a place to call home when you needed one — did become reality. A Port in the Storm, a downtown adult medical hospice for rural and northern residents, become operational in 2012.
Today it is contained in 17 suites, complete with fully equipped kitchens and private bathrooms, and housed within a larger apartment block in downtown Winnipeg at 311 Alexander Ave.
Getting ill, whether with cancer or any other serious illness is terrible enough, but the financial burden of illness can be massive. Costs from multiple trips to and from the city and accommodation and meals away from home can become staggering, says Stacey Grocholski, A Port in the Storm executive director.
[AUDIO CLIP:Stacey Grocholski describes the mission of ‘A Port in the Storm’]
And this is on top of the stress of being away from home and family and the supports you need most at these times.
“There’s a real disparity between rural and urban,” said Grocholski. “We take it for granted here in the city that we can go back home after an appointment or treatment, but for those travelling great distances, what do you do?”
To date over 900 persons living outside Winnipeg have stayed here, some alone, others bringing families, some staying even just one night to many months, or as long as they need to be close to facilities where they’re receiving treatment for anything from cancer to renal dialysis to a high-risk pregnancy. People are referred to the facility by their medical caregivers.
The location at 311 Alexander was chosen for close proximity to both the Health Sciences Centre and St. Boniface Hospital.
It didn’t take long to be recognized as an essential service. Some have since told their three-member staff that had this alternative accommodation not existed, they would have had to refuse treatment, Grocholski said.
“It really is mind blowing that in the 21st century that there aren’t supports for individuals because of financial reasons,” she said.
Port in the Storm mitigates that expense by keeping rates at a fraction of what a hotel would cost — $58 for those without insurance covering stays in an adult medical hospice, $75 for those who do have benefits coverage for it.
The facility receives no government support, and is instead supported entirely by private donations, from individuals, corporations and third-party fundraisers. Many support its Adopt-a-Suite program. All fundraising helps close the gap between user fees, and the site’s actual operating costs of $92 per night, said Grocholski.
Having recently signed another two-year lease, they’re now looking ahead at the need for their service. What isn’t in question is the need for A Port in the Storm but how much demand will exist going forward.
“We have doctors on our advisory committees and we check in with them quite often to understand the trends,” she said. “Unfortunately, cancer is not going away and other illnesses are increasing with the aging population. We foresee that we’re going to be busy.”
This past year they had an 85 per cent occupancy rate, and keep some suites available in case there are immediate and urgent needs to meet. The largest percentage of those who stay here come from northern Manitoba, with the rest coming from outlying regions of rural Manitoba.
A Port in the Storm was the recipient of the 2018 Chamber of Commerce’s Spirit of Winnipeg award in the ‘Non-profit and Social Enterprise’ category, recognizing social innovators driven to solve complex socio-economic challenges.
A presentation was made about it at two concurrent Manitoba Rural Women’s Days hosted by the Manitoba Women’s Institute this fall in Virden and Morden. Debbie Melosky, chair of the events’ planning committee said MWI wants to spread the word about this site, not only so others know about it if it’s needed, but so support through fundraising for it may expand.
“This was not something that a lot of people were even aware of so it’s been very informative,” she said.
Some rural communities, in fact, are doing significant fundraising for it. The Harding Community Club, for example, has raised over $7,200 for the Adopt-a-Suite program. Another rural-area donor is Minnedosa and District Community Foundation which recently gave the facility $2,000.
Said Minnedosa resident Heather Emerson Proven, A Port in the Storm board member who spoke about it at the MWI events: “We all hope that we or our families will never need a place like this. But I am happy that it is there should you need it.”
To learn more, visit aportinthestorm.ca.