June 24, 2014
Story by Kerry Williamson
An invitation to meet royalty does not come along every day.
But what happens when your only clothes smell of smoke and ash – remnants of a devastating wildfire - and you have nothing fit for a date with a princess?
That was the problem four Fort McMurray long term care residents faced upon their return to their home at Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.
Frank Gibot, Denis Barnaby, Irvin Higdon and Clarence Boucher returned to the hospital’s continuing care wing on Thursday, June 23, more than seven weeks after they were evacuated from the community as fire raged around them.
They were excited to return home, an excitement bolstered after Alberta Health Services secured them special invitations to attend a luncheon with Sophie Rhys-Jones, Countess of Wessex the very next day.
“They were super excited,” said Denise Wilkinson, Area Manager for Senior’s Health.
“But, their clothes were all heavily smoke damaged and were still in boxes. They didn’t have anything other than t-shirts and trackpants.”
So, Wilkinson took their measurements and asked about their favourite colours.
Then, she headed to Fort McMurray’s Mark’s Work Warehouse, where she bought them pants, black socks, a nice shirt, and a tie.
The morning of the Royal visit, Wilkinson brought in a needle and thread, along with her iron. She hemmed their pants, her colleague Lola Thorne ironed their shirts and they had the four residents looking like kings.
“They looked so charming,” she said. “And they felt very special.”
Frank Gibot has called Northern Lights home for 14 years, and was thrilled to finally return after staying in Edmonton since he was evacuated from the hospital on May 2.
Gibot told Fort McMurray Today that he was happy to be home, grateful for his new outfit, and excited to meet the Countess.
“I’ll be glad to meet her,” said Gibot. “I feel pretty special for the invite.”
Thirty-two continuing care residents were evacuated from the hospital, along with 73 acute care patients – a safe and successful rescue that took less than two hours.
They were initially taken to Suncor’s Firebag site north of Fort McMurray, before being flown to Edmonton and given temporary homes at other continuing care sites.
They will continue to return home over the next two weeks - four residents will return every Monday and Wednesday. All are expected to be back by July 11.
When the first returnees arrived home on May 24, they were greeted by welcome home banners, balloons and relieved staff members.
“We started work on bringing our residents home on day three after the evacuation,” said Wilkinson.
“My team visited with them regularly, figuring out how to get them home, but it wasn’t until yesterday that we were able to take a deep breath. Our first residents are home. It’s a great start.”
Wilkinson said the returning residents were grateful for the care they received while they were away from Fort McMurray, but couldn’t wait to return to their own community.
“We’re not just opening beds, we are bringing people home.”