Lake Cowichan has something not every town of its size can boast. Since 2013, the Vancouver Island Health Authority has funded a primary healthcare team, based out of the Kaatza Health Centre, offering an array of services to anyone from the area who is living with a chronic health condition.
The program — which provides patients with access to counselling services, a dietitian, a public health nurse and fitness programs — has the potential to turn lives around, and Bill Bergen knows this firsthand.
Bergen was always an active person — he remembers a time when he used to swim around Mesachie Lake almost every day — but years of driving a truck and running equipment left him with debilitating knee and back pain, a condition that limited his walking ability and kept him from exercising.
“The less active you are, the more weight you put on and the more weight you put on, the less active you are. And it’s a downward spiral,” he said, adding that being in that state isn’t good for a person’s mental wellbeing.
He went to see Heather Strong, the healthcare team’s behavioural health clinician, and from there learned about everything else they had to offer. He met with dietitian Bronwyn Coyne; he attended seminars about stress management and ways to improve sleep habits; and he saw that fitness coordinator Kim Magnan hosts a Learning to Exercise class and decided to join.
He said he was very impressed with Magnan’s ability to work around each participants injuries or physical conditions, modifying exercises so they work for each individual.
“Because of that, you start moving, the downward spiral starts turning into an upward spiral,” said Bergen. “I’ve been doing the exercise [classes] for just over a year. I’ve lost 26 pounds so far. And I feel so much better. I take pills because I’m in pain, but I don’t have to take as many or as much because my overall health is improving. And that’s huge.”
There are three fitness classes offered through the primary healthcare program and Bergen attends them all; Learn to Exercise is on Wednesdays and Fridays, along with a weight training class on the same days, and circuit training is on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. All classes are held at the Cowichan Lake Sports Arena.
Magnan helps new clients figure out which would be most suitable for them during an intake consultation, in which she assesses their fitness level and their long- and short-term goals.
“We then combine their fitness level, their goals, and their life schedule and figure out which classes would be most suitable for them. We don’t really prescribe, per se, the classes, we kind of figure out based on realistic parameters what classes would work for people,” she said.
The Learn to Exercise class is the most entry level, followed by the circuit training and then the weight class.
The latter is the most self-directed.
“I give everyone a set of exercises to work through but then I don’t lead them through them. I teach them how to do it the one time, and they kind of progress through at their own pace,” she said.
The chronic illness condition for qualifying for the healthcare team’s services is broad and “pretty much encompasses anything,” said Magnan, who notices diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis are particularly common among clients.
She and her colleagues do annual check-ins — both qualitative and quantitative — with all active participants.
“It’s been really exciting to see on paper that people are doing better after being part of the primary health program,” she said.
In an email to the Gazette, VIHA manager of media relations and issues management Kellie Hudson said the program aims to achieve specific outcomes “including decreased reliance on acute care, improved attachments to primary care for target populations, improved health outcomes and improved patient and provider experiences.”
Hudson said the team in Lake Cowichan is part of the wider Community Health Services Program in the Cowichan Valley. She also said that while individual community health teams are made up of different professionals, they do exist on many parts of the Island.
For retirees living on a fixed income or people like Bergen, unable to work because of health problems, the primary healthcare team has been invaluable.
“I’m on a disability pension. There’s no way I could afford to get that one-on-one attention. A dietitian, a personal trainer — that’s money I don’t have,” said Bergen, who said he can’t afford the alternative, which would be driving to Duncan and paying to use the gym there.
“These are fantastic programs… It’s not only something I think people should use, but it’s something that should be supported. We are so fortunate to have the team here that we do.”