7 Feb 2022

Southland Charity Hospital could open mid-2022 despite setbacks

9:05 am on 7 February 2022

The pandemic has caused a setback for the new Southland Charity Hospital, but it is already offering colonoscopies, and organisers hope to have its doors open by mid-2022.

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An artist's impression of the Southland Charity Hospital Photo: Southland Charity Hospital

The project is the brainchild of the late cancer care advocate Blair Vining and his wife Melissa.

Vining, a 39-year-old Southland farmer, was best known for using his final months to fight for better cancer care for all New Zealanders following a diagnosis of terminal bowel cancer in 2018.

During his fight against cancer Vining also dreamed big - including the dream of building a charity hospital for the people of Southland. His widow has driven that dream since he died in October 2019.

"At the time when Blair said 'You just need to get on and build a hospital babe', I actually thought he was maybe a little bit delusional from the drugs. But it's actually turned out to be a huge privilege and a blessing, and anyone that's involved with the project understands why," Melissa Vining told RNZ.

"When you see all these people just giving what they can - whether it's legal advice, whether it's building expertise, project management expertise, little kids at schools giving their money to help buy bricks - when you see it just touch so many parts of the community and for everybody to work together to achieve this, you just truly feel privileged to be part of it and to see it."

It was originally hoped the Southland Charity Hospital would open in April 2022.

The hospital building is being converted from an old pub donated by the Invercargill Licensing Trust. The building consent was granted in May 2021.

But the Delta outbreak and the lockdown which followed set those plans back by a few months, and those behind the project now hope to open the hospital in July.

Two fundraising events, the Charity Ball and Rockin' With the Stars, also had to be postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The Southland Charity Hospital aims to cater to health needs of Otago and Southland residents when let down by the public health system, offering colonoscopies and dental treatment for free.

Melissa said despite the setbacks, the project was progressing well.

"We're well into the build process, with the extension complete and local tradespeople and personnel have been generously donating their time and goods. That - combined with the donations we've received - means we have enough to complete the build.

"We are on the last phase - which is to raise a million dollars to kit out the hospital; a million dollars to go and then we'll be all up and running."

She said it has been a massive community project.

"I don't even have words to express my gratitude to the project managers and the tradies that have jumped on board.

"There's such a big stress on the whole construction industry and people have generously donated us supplies and kept us fairly on track. So I've got nothing to complain about and I'm just incredibly grateful."

Colonoscopies already on offer

While they were not yet taking patient referrals for all services, she said they could already offer colonoscopies, thanks to the generosity of a private hospital and clinicians in the area.

"Our clinical committee, which is made up of doctors, nurses, dentists, they've also had an arrangement going with a private hospital which has allowed us to start helping patients.

"So big hearts here in the Southern region from Otago and Southland, getting that up and running with volunteers immediately, even though the hospital's not even built yet."

If someone had been declined through the Southern DHB, their GP could refer them to the Southland Charity Hospital.

Once the opening date is confirmed they will be able to start taking patients for other services.

To think of what had been achieved in just two short years was jaw-dropping, Vining said.

"When I stop and think about what our community - and New Zealand really - has achieved, the government don't even build hospitals in two years," she said.

"It's just the power of the people. We've had everything from lawyers, accountants, builders, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians - every pocket of the community, even schools - people from Northland have bought bricks, Gisborne, Wellington - everyone is just behind us.

"That's why it's been achieved, because of all these incredible people from everywhere helping us. And to do it in such a short space of time is nothing short of miraculous."

She was sure Blair would be proud.

"I often think about what he would think of what everyone has achieved to have ticked this off, and I think he'd just be so grateful to be making a difference for those people who are unable to access those services now.

"I know he was incredibly proud of the people of Southland and he loved his community, and to know those people were suffering because they couldn't access public healthcare.

"I just think he'd be stoked to know that all these people are prepared to get behind this vision to ease the burden and pain to those families. So, yeah, I think he'd be pretty proud."

Vining had often been a critic of the public healthcare system - particularly in the space of cancer care - and she had no intentions of giving up that fight either.

"I have no doubt in my mind that the work from all these people and the generosity of the country will save lives," Vining said.

"Bowel cancer, if detected early, is curable. And to be a part of a huge team of people who are achieving this it goes a long way towards giving me comfort that we will be helping end that suffering in our region.

"And I'm not giving up on hoping that one day the politicians understand the harm that they're causing by not funding this adequately, and creating accountability of those DHBs. But hopefully we can do our bit and, hopefully, one day the politicians will do theirs."

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