Two new families have rolled up their sleeves to ensure a northwestern Alberta community once again has health-care access close to home.
After at least 30 years without local health-care services, the town of Wembley has welcomed a pharmacy and a medical clinic, which opened within months of each other.
Behind the businesses are Rey Gabriel, a pharmacist, and family physician Dr. Angela Luckham and her husband, Alexander, all of whom decided to put down roots in the community of 1,500 people just 20 km west of Grande Prairie.
Both families—the Gabriels from Tofield and the Luckhams from Hay River, N.W.T.—independently decided to bring their health-care expertise to town.
For Chris Turnmire, the town’s recently retired mayor, having two dedicated health professionals suddenly eyeing space in his town was nothing short of miraculous.
“To be able to get a medical clinic back here in Wembley has been just a godsend to the community,” said Turnmire, who spent more than a decade on council advocating to reopen a clinic in Wembley.
Turnmire has lived in the community for 20 years and during that time neither a clinic nor pharmacy were in operation—the last medical centre shut down at least three decades ago. Residents were forced to travel to Beaverlodge—about 20 km west—or a similar distance east to Grande Prairie to see a doctor.
“To be able to get a medical clinic back here in Wembley has been just a godsend to the community.”
– Chris Turnmire, former Wembley mayor
Wembley officials were in discussions with a doctor in Beaverlodge to have a satellite clinic set up, but the physician resources were always too limited to branch out into nearby Wembley.
Then, about three years ago, Gabriel, a pharmacist who had been working in Tofield since emigrating from the Philippines via the United States, decided it was time to branch out on his own. He didn’t want to pull customers away from his previous employer’s pharmacy, so decided to set up far enough away to create his own customer base.
Gabriel took an exploratory trip north to Wembley with his wife and two children, and soon decided the small town, just outside of Grande Prairie, was an ideal location for the new Wembley Remedy’sRx Pharmacy, which opened in 2019.
Around the same time, the Luckhams had settled into Wembley. They chose the community since it was an easy commute to the Grande Prairie Airport where Alexander is based as a medevac pilot.
“When we moved to the area, we didn’t know much about it or about what medical services were available,” said Angela.
“I spent the first few months [filling in] at a clinic in Grande Prairie which helped me get oriented to health care in Alberta—every province and territory operates a little bit differently,” said Angela, a Nova Scotia native.
“My husband and I started talking about the idea of opening our own clinic, so I could work closer to home and offer medical services to our community.”
Angela popped into Gabriel’s pharmacy shortly after it opened and inquired about the vacant space next door.
After receiving financial contributions for clinic start-up costs from the Town of Wembley and the County of Grande Prairie, months of renovations (completed by Alexander), and working through paperwork, legalities, and other logistics, the Wembley Medical Clinic opened its doors in August 2020.
“We went about a few things a little backwards although thankfully everything worked out well with no delays,” said Angela, who was pregnant with their first child during this time.
The Gabriels and Luckhams have no regrets about making the move to their adopted town of Wembley.
“I just think that’s part of my entrepreneurial spirit,” said Gabriel, adding he will open a second pharmacy in Grande Prairie in early 2022.
For the Luckhams, it has been busy times with a new home, a 10-month-old daughter, and, of course, a new clinic all during the COVID-19 pandemic. Angela shares the workload with another full-time doctor and uses a couple of locums (or substitute) physicians to fill in as needed. Alexander takes care of maintenance and bookkeeping for the clinic.
“Starting a clinic from scratch was a lot of work, but also very rewarding to see and be able to work in the finished product,” said Angela. “Our clinic has a small footprint, but it is bright, welcoming, and very efficient.
“I feel thankful every day that I’m fortunate enough to work in such a great environment with a great team of colleagues and staff.”
“When you’re looking at it from a council perspective … what’s the biggest bang for your buck? [The medical clinic] is something that serves a lot of people, rather than just a narrow, specific interest group.”
– Chris Turnmire, former Wembley mayor
Having a prescribing pharmacist next door is also a huge asset to the community, she said.
Gabriel agrees the setup is a win-win for the area’s residents, a mix of younger families and some seniors.
“The clinic and the pharmacy complement each other, so that we can provide the best care to the patient, which is always at the centre of the circle of care.”
Turnmire believes the community’s investment was well worth it for the town nestled in oil and gas country.
“When you’re looking at it from a council perspective … what’s the biggest bang for your buck? [The medical clinic] is something that serves a lot of people, rather than just a narrow, specific interest group,” he said.
“This is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling activities and services to come along in [my] 11 years [on council].”