Supporting rural Ontario’s health care

Poultry farmers raise funds for rural health research

by Jim Algie

A group of Huron and Perth County poultry farmers has gathered in the month of September for a few years now at the Seaforth Golf Club for what they call “The Chicken Classic.”

The event is a round of golf for fun that also raises funds for charity. In recent years, the Chicken Classic organizers have donated the proceeds to the Goderich-based Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health, a unique, nine-year-old organization created to support and research rural health issues.

That’s how Brian Falconer and Alex Westerhout, tournament organizers, happened to meet Rose-Marie Dolinar, a nurse practitioner and PhD candidate at Western University. It also explains how a handful of their poultry-producing colleagues became part of Dolinar’s continuing research on lung disease in farmers.

“Most farmers ... were exposed to the dust from the chicken barns, dust from the fields, moulds, microtoxins, ammonia and all that good stuff,” Westerhout said in a recent interview. “Farmers generally have this kind of ‘I’ll-be-all-right attitude’ and tend not to worry about (health issues) until it’s too late.”

Chicken Barn Interior

    Photo credit: roibu/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

Through a post on the Gateway Centre website, Dolinar recruited participants for a pilot study in health screening and testing of protective masks funded by The Lung Association. Reported in a paper published this spring in the Journal of the Ontario Occupational Health Nurses, the study tested questionnaires and techniques for examining and educating farmers about their occupational respiratory hazards.

The pilot was a dry run for a national study Dolinar completed recently.

For Westhout, a life-long poultryman and the proprietor of a four-barn broiler and cash-cropping operation near Clinton, the testing showed his protective mask fit properly and his lungs are “surprisingly good for a guy my age at the job I’m doing,” he said.

And the Chicken Classic’s support for Gateway was a fairly easy choice, Westerhout said.

“They do a lot of research into health issues that are more or less specific to rural people,” he said.

“We figured all the people who participate in the golf tournament are either farmers or farm suppliers, so everybody’s hoping any funds we raise benefit all of rural Ontario.”

The ongoing lung health study is one example of research and health promotion activity coordinated by Gateway, a charity established in 2008 by a group of local doctors, nurses and other health care workers. Spearheaded by Gwen Devereaux, a registered nurse and health administrator who now heads recruitment and business development for Alexandra Marine & General Hospital in Goderich, Gateway was established to maintain a program to “entice” area high school students to consider health care careers.

Since its launch, Devereaux and a growing staff and board have expanded Gateway to generate programs and studies to support regional health institutions and practitioners across Grey, Bruce, Huron and Perth Counties. These efforts include education for retirement, and summer research and health promotion projects for medical, pharmacy and nursing undergraduates. This summer saw a total of nine students working full time on a variety of projects, including mental health, palliative care, and drug issues among youth.

One of Gateway’s most successful, reoccurring fundraisers is a celebrity hockey game relying on an informal network of area National Hockey League players, including Gwen’s nephew and former Maple Leaf, Boyd Devereaux, as well as Huron County’s O’Reilly brothers. Gateway operates the fundraiser in conjunction with Alexandra Hospital and the Goderich-Huron Family YMCA. Since 2014, the annual Hometown Heroes: Raise a Little Health has generated donations in excess of $130,000.

Goderich has maintained a high profile in regional health care since the days of Dr. Jim Rourke, an outspoken family doctor who later served as dean of medicine at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Rourke pioneered the concept of “distributed education,” which involves the placement of medical students in rural settings.

Gateway was incorporated in 2008, after a group of about 15 interested participants took a 2007 road trip to the University of Kentucky’s Center of Excellence in Rural Health.

“There was nothing equal in Canada so we went (to Kentucky) to see what they were doing,” Deveraux said.

What they found was a community with similar health issues, including high rates of heart disease and diabetes, and a model for public health research and medical training for physicians, physiotherapists and nurses serving a mainly rural population.

The recent lung study shows Gateway at its best, Devereaux said. The centre generates research directly beneficial to rural residents by finding funds through government and donor sources.

“They’re very important people in our community because they’re driving our industry around here,” Devereaux said of the region’s farmers. “We need to keep the farmers as healthy as we possibly can.” BF

UPDATED Nov. 9, 2017 to correct Dolinar’s recruitment method.


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