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Community inspiration celebrated


It was the icing on a patiently and carefully constructed cake when the West Otago Health Trust won the supreme award at the 2015 National Trustpower Community Awards last month. South Otago reporter Samuel White takes a look how Tapanui, population 2300, stepped up to raise millions of dollars and why it needed a medical centre anyway.

The West Otago Health Trust has been recognised for its inspiring work in galvanising a community to raise almost $4million for a medical centre in Tapanui.

It is the first time in the Trustpower Community Awards' 22-year history a group from the Clutha district has won a national supreme award.

It is, by all accounts, well deserved.

community-inspirationPlans to build a medical centre in the small West Otago town started when health reforms led to the closure of the 82-year-old Tapanui Hospital in 1994.

Like many isolated rural communities, dwindling population and increasing costs, combined with reduced funding, contributed to the closure.

While the sole doctor, Peter Snow, was able to continue his practice at a medical centre in the town, the building was small, and ultimately could not cater for demand.

The West Otago Health Trust was formed to look into a more substantial replacement for the hospital.

Gore, the nearest medical centre, was often booked out and there were few other options for West Otago residents.

It was also recognised that a rest-home was required in the area.

In 2008 plans were made for an "integrated'' health-care centre, which would include aged care, on the Tapanui Hospital site.

The Government had given the land and buildings of the former hospital to the trust.

West Otago ward councillor Michele Kennedy, who was on the fundraising committee, said West Otago people had always fought for anything they had wanted and built their own facilities, including the swimming pool and the community centre.

Much of the work to raise the $3.68million needed was driven by strong leadership from the trust, particularly fundraising committee chairwoman Annalie Downie.

It was not her idea, Mrs Downie said, but somehow she ended up in charge of fundraising.

The key had been including the whole community, so there was a sense of ownership in the fundraising and the final outcome.

There was never any doubt the committee would raise the money.

"Everyone stepped up and everyone had their job.''

Fundraisers included book sales, pine-cone collecting, livestock sales and a beerfest.

In all, there were more than 80 fundraising events which brought in more than $500,000.

The amount of money donated alone by West Otago residents or associates topped $1 million.

As well as money, people donated labour, assets and time.

"There were often moments when you were least expecting to get over the line with something and someone's generosity would come through and overwhelm you.''

Now, the West Otago Health Trust owns the complex, including the recently opened aged-care facility, Ribbonwood, the single-doctor medical centre, which is supported by a team of nurses, and a training centre for nurses and doctors.

Trust chairman Allister Body said Tapanui was unique in being able to give student nurses an opportunity to experience a variety of different medical problems in a rural environment.

It was important to make sure nurses were well-trained, he said.

"With a sole GP practice, you can't rely on the fact the GP is always going to be there, so your nurses have to be working to the top end of their scope.''

One of the permanent nursing staff, Gina Mills, was a candidate to become the nurse-practitioner at West Otago Health, working alongside the GP, Dr Fons Captijn.

Trust chairwoman Marianne Parks said the trust really operated as "the landlord'', while West Otago Health Ltd ran the day-to-day business, managing contracts with health providers, the community nursing programme and the rest-home, where seven residents lived.

As a non-profit organisation, the trust relied on the continued support of the community and use of its facilities.

Mrs Kennedy said it was a given that the community would maintain its spirit and be happy to get in behind anything needed.

"We are a tight-knit community and have always been.''

She said there might have been doubt at times but now that everyone could see what was available, any negativity was forgotten.

A helicopter pad was an enormous boost to the area, Mrs Kennedy said.

Without the emergency helicopter, many patients would not be alive, she said.

"But they are here to tell their story ... Things like that are very vital.''

Having a medical centre within a five-minute drive saved hours of travel not only for medical services but also for those using and visiting the rest-home.

"It's a home ... it's where they're living in,'' Mrs Kennedy said.

"When you've lived in an area all your life, you really don't want to spend your last couple of years having left your area altogether.''