Bowen may be a 20 minute ferry ride from one of the largest metropolises in Canada but health services can seem a world away.
Rural and remote communities, including Bowen, are eligible for BC Emergency Health Services’ Community Paramedicine Initiative, where paramedics bridge health service gaps and provide community health awareness. In 2017, Keith Tyler and Janis Treleaven became the island’s first community paramedics. Now, four years on, Gale Lyttle and Kristine Kumar occupy the two positions.
The paramedics focus on assisting patients who are over 65 and who have any chronic diseases. They do education for individuals (managing symptoms, what to look for and when to reach out for help) and in non-pandemic times do community outreach and education at schools and events like Bowfest.
The community paramedics also have a vehicle stocked with medical equipment. If someone on the island needs help and the ambulance crew is attending a different person, the community paramedic on duty can respond to the call but they cannot transport patients in the vehicle. “So we would wait and stabilize patients and stay with them until the crew came back,” explained Kumar.
Each community paramedic works two days a week. They get patient referrals from primary health care providers and largely visit Bowen Islanders at home. If the health care provider is worried about a patient falling, the community paramedic can do a fall risk assessment, if the patient has COPD and oxygen level concerns, the paramedic can take vitals and report back.
“Our goal as community paramedics is to empower people to manage their own health in the comfort of their own homes,” said Kumar. “Especially right now, with COVID going on, I don’t want people who’ve recently been diagnosed with terminal illness or chronic condition to feel isolated.”
Both Lyttle and Kumar started their paramedicine careers on Bowen Island.
Lyttle started as a part-time ambulance volunteer in 1989. “It very much was a community service type thing,” she said. “I just found it interesting and decided to pursue it.”
She became ambulance unit chief on-island from 1991 to 1997, proceeding to go full-time in town and become a unit chief in West Vancouver in 2001, then retiring from full-time service in 2015. Lyttle started training for the community paramedic role in late 2019. “It’s a nice way to stay on the island. It was looping back to my original community service type thing.”
Kumar started at the Bowen ambulance station six years ago. Though she lives on the mainland, Kumar feels very welcomed on Bowen. “Coming to Bowen doesn’t feel like work,” she said. “Just the sense of family here. Everyone’s always looking out for each other.”
“This community has definitely had a great positive impact in my life. That’s why I wanted to invest more of myself [through the community paramedic program].”
When she’s not on Bowen, Kumar has long worked out of Vancouver General Hospital’s emergency department as unit coordinator.
“A lot of paramedics would come in and I got really interested in what exactly they had to go through,” said Kumar. “I like the fact that you can impact someone’s life within five minutes of meeting them.”
Kumar is just finishing up her training and will soon be taking on on-island clients.