After nearly a decade of delays, construction on the Nurse Iris O’Neal Medical Centre in Virgin Gorda is finally set for completion in December. But before it opens, the BVI Health Services Authority needs $1.5 million from donors to fill it with equipment.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Health and Social Development Minister Ronnie Skelton, who acknowledged the delays but said the centre, which is built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, is a vital part of expanding health care on an island where it hasn’t always been easily available.
On Friday, Shaina Smith, project manager for Smith and Associates, led some of those potential donors through the medical centre as part of the opening ceremony for the pledge programme. Joined by Ninth District Representative Dr. Hubert O’Neal, they strapped on hard hats for a tour through the facility, which is being constructed in The Valley next to the existing clinic.
For now, the inside of the centre remains a shell that is still awaiting drywall. Cement blocks, hoses and other construction materials were stacked where x-ray machines and beds will soon be installed.
But Ms. Smith helped the donors visualise the complete facility, beginning with a trip through the ambulance bay and leading into a decontamination unit for emergency medical technicians.
“You’ll be wheeled in and taken into urgent care,” she said, leading the group into the five-bed unit. “This room here is a procedure room, akin to the ER at Peebles. This is where we’ll have procedures done in response to emergency cases.”
After that came treatment rooms. Ms. Smith said the 10-bed medical centre will accommodate short-term overnight stays, but is not designed for long-term care. As part of a future phase, it may eventually include obstetric and gynaecological services, she added.
Around the corner, she pointed to the future home of x-rays, ultrasounds and laboratory services.
“Doctors will have access to the same imaging used at Peebles,” allowing teams to collaborate on patient care, she said.
Given the extensive delays in construction — the most recent of which have been blamed largely on difficulties obtaining the right materials — Ms. Smith wasn’t surprised to get questions about the projected timeline.
However, she addressed them by saying that all building materials had been purchased last year, and most of them have been in storage in Miami.
“So once we started to resume the project, we are receiving materials every other week,” she said.“That’s one of our main targets in the next 30 days, is to ensure that everything that’s needed is here on island. Now it’s just a matter of work.”
In an additional effort to speed up the process, the second storey of the centre will remain incomplete for now while the BVIHSA focuses on getting the ground floor outfitted with equipment.
“The process is twofold,” added BVIHSA CEO Paula Chester-Cumberbatch. “Once we have the construction, then we have the commission of the building, the utilities, the services, all those things. We have some equipment already, and then it’s about moving the old facility across into the new.”
By the end of the launch ceremony Friday, $86,000 had been raised for the remaining equipment.
Although last week marked the launch of the formal pledge programme, the government has been soliciting donations since 2015, bringing in some $300,000 in total, said Ms. Chester-Cumberbatch.
These previous donations, which among others came from philanthropists David Johnson of Oil Nut Bay, Peter Haycraft of Road Town Wholesale, and Larry Page of Google, still remain in an untouched bank account, according to the CEO.
“It’s about us ensuring … every penny is accounted for,” she said.
‘A difficult event’
Dr. O’Neal, who personally pledged $10,000, said he had included a VG clinic in his campaign platform since as far back as 1999.
On Friday, he said he was “happy and relieved” that the project has reached the home stretch, especially on an island where residents have traditionally had trouble accessing quality medical care.
“The clinic was not open 24 hours; the nurse did not even live at the clinic,” he recalled.
“We had our resident doctor here, but that doctor was not available. If we had serious in juries, or illness or an accident and we needed to get to Peebles, it was always a difficult event.”
Teen philanthropist Jaleel Cameron spoke to the crowd about the importance of philanthropy.
“Health care is all of our business,” he said, encouraging donors to be a part of history. “I know that the government tries to do everything they can, but … it’s not possible for them to do everything, so us as community-minded persons have to.”
The project stretches back to 2009, when government purchased the land. Architectural plans were released in May 2010, but the project was delayed after a Commercial Court ruling dissolved the firm that had completed the initial designs.
It took until 2013 to come up with new designs, and in June 2014 Mr. Skelton announced an 18-to-24-month timeline for completion.
In March 2015, James Todman Construction Limited was awarded a $6 million contract to build the approximately 20,000-square-foot facility, and broke ground that month.
At the time, Petrona Davies, permanent secretary in the HSD Ministry, said she expected the project to be completed within 12 months.
But at a House of Assembly meeting in April 2016, Mr. Skelton said project officials were waiting for the building’s steel frame to arrive in six to eight weeks, after which “it’ll go up as quickly as possible.”
Construction resumed with the arrival of the steel in November 2016.
But despite the minister’s announcement of a July 2017 grand opening, plans were later pushed back to September of that year, and Hurricane Irma caused further delays.
Now, as donations flow in, Ms. Chester-Cumberbatch explained that each one would be displayed on the new medical centre’s donor wall, with donors receiving advertisement space in the June 2019 edition of the BVIHSA publication Pulse Magazine in addition to having their name or their organisation’s name mentioned in press releases and audio and video productions.
On Friday, Rotary Club of Tortola was among the first to step up to the plate by presenting Ms. Chester-Cumberbatch with a cheque for $50,000.
Rotary District Governor-elect Delma Maduro, in explaining the donation, said that two areas of Rotary’s particular focus are maternal and child care and disease treatment and prevention, and that the donation furthers those ends.
“Records show we have given quite a lot of support to the health care system here in the BVI,” she said, adding that the service organisation had donated equipment worth $200,000 to the clinic.
Mr. Skelton and Dr. O’Neal also made personal donations of $10,000 each, and an additional $10,000 came in from Medicure Pharmacy.
The minister said the centre is not just about building a facility in Virgin Gorda, “but about ensuring that all people in the Virgin Islands will have access to health care wherever they are.”