Cardiac Fitness Institute fight ends with partial victory: Protester

Protesters fighting the closing of a fitness centre for heart patients at Southwestern Ontario’s largest hospital are claiming a partial victory after they learned Thursday some of the centre’s functions will be transferred to another facility in London.

Someone blinked.

Protesters fighting the closing of a fitness centre for heart patients at Southwestern Ontario’s largest hospital are claiming a partial victory after they learned Thursday some of the centre’s functions will be transferred to another facility in London.

“I’m kind of stunned at the moment,” said  Joanne McIntosh, who helped lead protests to stop the  London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC)  from shutting down its Cardiac Fitness Institute  (CFI). McIntosh sent an online message to patients that the hospital plans to transfer them to the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging at Mount St. Joseph’s.

“They will be monitored, they will be stress-tested,” McIntosh said of patients, but added “all the details are sketchy at this point.”

The move falls short of the all-out win for which many patients had hoped, after LHSC announced late last year it was pulling the plug on the cardiac rehabilitation centre that first opened in 1981. It has since helped heart patients from across the region, providing exercise, stress testing and counselling for as long as patients wanted.

I think it’s a step in the right direction. We just have to make sure it’s sustainable.

MPP Jeff Yurek

But after a months-long backlash to the  closing, which included a Twitter campaign and a political push in the Ontario legislature, activists like McIntosh were counting at least a partial win Thursday.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted. We wanted CFI to stay at LHSC,” said McIntosh.

“Either they (the hospital) blinked, or this was in the works beforehand,” she added. “If this was all in the works, they made sure we didn’t know about it.”

One area MPP went further, suggesting that with a provincial election due by June 7 more than a few people folded on what had become a hot political file.

“I think the (Liberal) government did blink. They realized the election is right on our doorstep,” said  MPP Jeff Yurek, the Progressive Conservative health critic at Queen’s Park.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. We just have to make sure it’s sustainable,” Yurek, the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP, said of the new twist to the centre’s future.

LHSC wouldn’t confirm the new plan McIntosh relayed online to supporters, with a spokesperson saying only “we’re still finalizing details.”

Instead, media were referred to a statement on the hospital’s website that said of CFI members, “LHSC is committed to assisting individual members to find solutions that address their individual concerns.”

Paul Woods, LHSC’s new chief executive, dashed many patients’ hopes he would reverse the decision of his predecessor, but had said in an email to patients the hospital would “work with each CFI member to facilitate a medically appropriate transitional care plan.”

In putting the program on the chopping block, LHSC  had said CFI doesn’t fall under the mandate of an acute-care hospital and that LHSC  “receives no funding to support similar services and can no longer subsidize” the program’s costs.

Critics had scoffed at that, saying the hospital, with a $1.2-billion budget, should be able to afford the $300,000 cost and the preventive health care the program offers.

Woods  had said he believes only six months of care is needed for patients, the same timeframe used by St. Joseph’s Health Care in London for its rehab program and other acute care hospitals in Ontario.

In her online post, McIntosh said she’d repeatedly noted “this fight would not end until either LHSC reconsidered the abandonment of almost 2,000 cardiac patients” or until cardiologist Larry Patrick, the program’s founder, told her the fight was over.

“I have now received word of both,” she wrote.

If it was LHSC’s plan all along to transfer the patients, then it was “despicable” not to clearly communicate that to patients who were originally told they would be given their health records and referred back to their family doctors, McIntosh said.

Patrick said the latest twist is an improvement.

“It sure beats the decision they had before, which was just nothing, good-bye,” he said. “This is a more reasonable solution than the one they proposed three months ago.”

Said LondonWest  NDP MPP Peggy Sattler, who raised the issue in the legislature: “Why didn’t they just listen in the first place? I think that it does show the strength of people coming together to advocate for what they know is needed.”

The centre’s closing triggered an angry response from many patients, dozens of whom turned to The Free Press in calls and emails to tell their stories, many crediting their survival from heart troubles to the centre.

The protests also dogged the Liberal government, including last week when Premier Kathleen Wynne made a visit to London.

“I’m really happy for the CFI patients,” said Jeff Hanks, another of the protest organizers. “I hope that the new place is just as good as the old one.”

LHSC hasn’t said exactly when CFI will be closed, but Patrick said he’s retiring April 27.

It was not immediately clear what a transfer of CFI patients would cost or how that will be covered.

“The bottom line is that patients are not going to be abandoned,” said McIntosh, who said in her post  the centre where the CFI program is bound will receive its equipment and $63,000 leftover from a donation account, “which will be used to cover as many memberships as possible until the money runs out.”

The Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging, set up in 1989 with affiliations to both London hospitals and medical research and education in London, offers exercise classes that now attract more than 500 London seniors each week, the centre says on its website.

The centre did not respond to a Free Press request for comment.

danbrown@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/DanatLFPress


Chronology

Late 2017: LHSC publishes statement indicating plans to close CFI by March 2018, triggering a backlash by heart patients, many of whom credit their survival to the centre’s services.

Feb. 24: Area MPPs Peggy Sattler and Jeff Yurek join save CFI protest in front of Victoria Hospital.

March 15: Protesters demonstrate outside riding office of London Liberal MPP Deb Matthews.

March 16: Protesters huddle with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in London for a campaign-style stop. She listens to their concerns, but makes no commitments

March 22: Details are sketchy, but an activist in the campaign to save CFI says LHSC will now refer CFI patients to the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging in London.

The London Free Press