ESTEVAN - Elaine Walkom says she wanted to donate $2 million for the purchase of an MRI unit at St. Joseph's Hospital in Estevan because she wants to give back to a community that has given so much to her family.
Walkom was thrust into the provincial spotlight on the weekend when it became public that the Ministry of Health had denied the donation request. The $2 million would have covered the cost of the unit and the training of two technicians required to operate the machine.
People throughout the southeast have been criticizing the ministry's decision, while the Saskatchewan NDP, which is the official opposition, and the Buffalo Party of Saskatchewan have panned the government.
Walkom is surprised at the reaction, and she said her phone has been ringing off the hook.
She recalled that she approached Greg Hoffort, the former executive director at St. Joe's, in March 2021 about the need for an MRI scanner.
"We talked on the phone a few times, and he looked around for the support. He had talked to some of the ministers … and he said that it looked good," Walkom said in an interview with the Mercury and SaskToday.
In April 2022, Walkom said there was a meeting with Everett Hindley, who was the minister of Rural and Remote Health at that time. Estevan MLA Lori Carr and other government representatives were also present.
Walkom said she heard little from the government over the next year, so she sent a letter in March 2023 to the then-Minister of Health Paul Merriman and received a response a couple of months later that denied the donation.
With no further progress, and no word from ministers or MLAs, she reached out to RM of Estevan Reeve Jason LeBlanc, who had her speak with Kevin Daoust, the councillor for the RM's Division 3. A meeting was held during the summer with representatives from several RMs in the region.
"The RMs were fairly upset, because it's such a needed item, such a needed piece of equipment for our area, because Estevan's the hub of healthcare for southeast Saskatchewan. So, they wrote a letter to Mr. Merriman, and somebody got the letter, put it on Facebook, and here we are," said Walkom.
The reaction the past few days pleased her but also came as a surprise.
"I'm hoping this will get the government to change their mind," said Walkom. "We here in the rural areas get forgotten about. That's not right. We pay our taxes. We elect these people. We pay their salaries. We're their boss. It's not the other way around."
She also spoke with Carr, and Walkom characterized the conversation as "a bit testy".
The Estevan MLA did tell Walkom that St. Joe's executive director Candace Kopec has been working on the business plan for an MRI.
Walkom has also had conversations with Kopec about the status of the machine, and Walkom believes Kopec was as helpful as possible. She credits Hoffort for trying his best on this file, and while nothing came to fruition, she said it wasn't from a lack of trying.
When her late husband Grant was battling cancer, the hospital provided excellent care for him, from the doctors to the nurses to the ambulance staff.
Walkom thought an MRI scanner would be a good addition for southeast Saskatchewan because people who live near the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border have to drive for more than three hours to Regina for an exam, and the drive can be challenging in the winter.
"Why don't we have one? We serve a huge amount of people in this area, and it just makes sense to put it in Estevan, because we're basically the hub from the west to the east. We're in the middle, so it makes sense to have it here."
Walkom has never needed an MRI, but she knows people who have, and it could be difficult to drive to Regina or to get someone to drive them.
Lots of people have told her how much they appreciate her efforts. They look forward to the day in which St. Joseph's Hospital will have a scanner and they won't have to make the drive.
In the letter to Walkom, the government suggested the $2 million could be directed towards other needs at St. Joseph's Hospital or health care in the community. Walkom said Carr suggested contributing to the new Estevan Regional Nursing Home committee.
Walkom noted that her family contributed to the Hearthstone Community Campaign – which was raising funds for the new nursing home from 2011-2015 – and Estevan still doesn't have a nursing home.
They have also donated in the past to the Estevan EMS and to St. Joseph's Hospital Foundation, but she wants the $2 million to go towards an MRI unit as a legacy for her husband, who died in 2017, and she wants it to help people who helped the Walkoms with their oilfield business, Hank's Maintenance.
"We're in their communities. We worked in the rural part of their communities with the operators and that sort of thing, so why not give back?" said Walkom.
In an email to the Mercury, the Ministry of Health said it thanked Walkom "for her generosity and for her interest in contributing to health care in Estevan".
"The Ministry of Health looks forward to further discussing opportunities to advance health care services in Estevan with Ms. Walkom and St. Joseph’s Hospital Foundation in the near future," the email stated.
"The development of a thorough plan is key to determining if and how a new health care service can be supported and accessible in the long term. The Ministry of Health is actively working with the operator of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Emmanuel Health, to develop a plan to support discussions on this issue."
The Ministry of Health is actively working with the operator of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Emmanuel Health, to develop a thorough plan that will support ongoing discussions on this issue.
"That includes the technical considerations required to determine if and how this new service could be supported and accessible in the long term," the ministry said.