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What happened when one B.C. doctor flew to the rescue amid a natural disaster

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VANCOUVER—A week after a “storm of the century” dumped a month’s worth of rain in two days on southern B.C., Dr. Aseem Grover and his team of medical workers at the Fraser Canyon Hospital in Hope would get a view of the full scope of the emergency.

As medical director, Grover had been integral to rural medical operations when floods, mudslides, collapsed bridges and washed-out roads stranded 1,100 visitors in Hope for days.

But this week, regional authorities were worried about several patients in Boston Bar, a doctor-less community of 200, some 54 kilometres away, cut off and running out of medicine and essential supplies.

So Grover sprung into action, taking a white-knuckle ride on a military helicopter, surviving a hairy landing in a community cut off by flood damage and practising the type of frontier medicine that’s part and parcel of doctoring in rural B.C. in the midst of a natural disaster.

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“Doctors in rural communities do heroic things on a daily basis, but a lot of things go unnoticed,” said Grover, who was quick to plug just how valuable rural medicine is, especially in times of emergencies.

There was no time to waste, as weather forecasts predicted more rain and no way to get to the community that’s home to the Boston Bar First Nation. One patient needed cancer chemotherapy and another, a two-year-old, needed fresh supplies for a feeding tube.

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A third patient urgently needed her monthly injection of psychiatric medication.

Enter the military — the only hope with roads shut. With just 90 minutes to prepare for takeoff, the Canadian Armed Forces helicopter with Grover and three non-medical military personnel aboard took off from Hope Airport just after sunset.

“It was like a movie,” Grover recalls. “If it was anybody else other than the military, it’d be a different story,” and he would have been extremely nervous. “I was admiring the beauty of the canyon, but at the same time appreciating how dangerous it can be.”

Grover had made the trip by car many times via Highway 1, which was now impassable because of storm-related damage. His Hope-based team of physicians had provided regular medical care to Boston Bar for years — including acute care and a weekly family practice clinic every Wednesday.

All that support was now cut off by the storm damage he could glimpse below, through breaks in the thick fog and poor visibility. Without this flight — it lasted half an hour — the patients had no hope of receiving help.

Grover, finding himself in familiar territory, directed the pilot to land in the field behind Canyon Lanes, the town’s bowling alley that also dispenses the town’s medications.

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With co-ordination help from First Nations Chief Pamela Robertson, all patients were quickly found and Grover saw them all in 45 minutes. All seemed to be going smoothly.

“It smelled like success” — at least initially, he told the Star.

Dr. Aseem Grover with the B.C. wildfire team.

But on the way back, the mission hit a snag. The steep, meandering chasm of the Fraser Canyon makes for postcard scenery on a clear, sunny day — but in flood conditions, pitch darkness and thick fog, its 30-foot slopes become foreboding obstacles. The fog ceiling forced the helicopter to fly low, further narrowing their safe options.

At one point, Grover realized they were flying at road level and he couldn’t make out the power lines due to fog. He then heard the military team yell in French and felt a steep drop, “just like a roller-coaster ride.”

They had landed on a dirt island on the Fraser River.

Afraid that worsening floods in the canyon might further compromise their landing spot, they decided to try for a more secure location in nearby Yale to park for the night.

In a social media post this week, Yale resident Randall Gardner described how he and others guided the crew. “We took them up to the highway to show them a safe landing spot for the time overnight.”

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Gardner’s girlfriend found an electric saw, and, “20 minutes later, we had some small trees cut down, and traffic was stopped.” In the fog and darkness, the helicopter then landed successfully between both train tracks and Highway 1.

Yale locals offered the military officers soup, sandwiches and snacks, and a place to stay the night. Realizing that he and the military had already flown past the roadblock north of Yale, Grover was given a ride back to Hope by his co-worker, physician Stefan Patrascu.

All in a day’s work?

“The smaller the town gets, the more you’ve just got to be a Jack of all trades,” said Grover of his practice. “I don’t think I’m a hero. But my efforts, combined with the military’s and Boston Bar First Nation’s, definitely led to some heroism,” he said.

“It’s like when somebody goes to the moon. Think of all the people involved in sending that person to the moon.”

Anthony Fong is an emergency physician in Vancouver and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine.

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