Poor cell service limits health care options for New Harbour resident

By Lois Ann Dort    

NEW HARBOUR – Wayne Gillie has had a lot of restless nights this summer. The initial cause was an undiagnosed heart condition; the current source of his wakefulness is poor cellular service in his rural community of New Harbour, Guysborough County. One directly impacts the other; so much so that inadequate cell service could be a matter of life and death for Gillie.

It started in June when Gillie had trouble sleeping. When he went to his local doctor, the trouble led to four months in and out of hospital; Guysborough, Antigonish and Halifax. The issue was diagnosed as a heart problem – a condition that ran in his family and took his father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather at an early age. Gillie, at 75, thought he was doing pretty well in terms of heredity heart issues but was not surprised to be fitted with a pacemaker and defibillator in Halifax earlier this summer. The surprise came later, when he found out that living in rural Nova Scotia meant technology was not up to par when it came to his ongoing health needs.

The sleepless symptom was actually a side effect of Gillie’s heart pausing through the night. In a study conducted at the hospital, his heart paused 50 times during one night. In one instance it paused for five seconds. With the pacemaker and defibulator in place, his heart activity could be monitor via a device that he could keep at his bedside table that would send information to doctors in Halifax; if he had cell service.

But cell service is not something in abundance in many rural areas. Gillie told The Journal on Monday that he bought a cell phone specifically for this purpose, but the signal was not strong enough to carry the life-saving information to those monitoring his condition.

Gillie was willing to try anything to get this information into the correct medical hands. He consulted his doctors. They told him to try to send the information via Internet but that wouldn’t work.

A cell phone would work if the signal was strong enough, so Gillie hired a technician to install a cell signal booster on his home. But that failed to make any impact on signal reception. A more powerful booster would cost thousands of dollars; more than he had to invest in the technology.

Gillie spoke to his family doctor about the problem, knowing his health would be in better hands if only he could get good cell service. The doctor wrote a note, “To whom it may concern,” indicating that Gillie needed cell service to monitor his heart function remotely. The letter was to be presented to the cellular service provider in the New Harbour area. Such service could save this man’s life. The note failed to make any difference in the situation.

Gillie also spoke to his MLA Lloyd Hines, who told him that the province was investing in rural cellular and internet access; the money is there. But when it will benefit his small community, Gillie could not ascertain. “I hope I am alive to see it,” he told The Journal on Monday.

“It is scary to think that in this day and age we can’t get cell service,” said Gillie, pointing out that likely 80 per cent of people in his area have the same issue in regard to cell phone service. And as rural Nova Scotia has an ageing demographic, he may not be the only person dealing with this predicament; placing his quality and quantity of life at risk by residing in a rural area.

“A while back, I was getting angry about this, but I’ve calmed down…I’m ready to die but I am not in a rush. I would like a few more years,” said Gillie.

Gillie came to New Harbour to live 25 years ago upon his retirement. He had links to the community through his father but had not expected to ever live in the rural area that he had once visited as a boy. But he brought his wife for a visit and she later suggested it would be a great place to retire. When the time came, he had tears in his eyes when looking at properties in the picturesque community and he knew it was the right decision to move to New Harbour.

Gillie told The Journal he’s never had any regrets about the move from Ontario until this issue arose. It’s been difficult and he hopes a resolution can be found before it is too late.

A request for information about cell service in New Harbour to Bell Aliant met with the following email from Katie Hatfield, Corporate Communications: “Bell’s wireless network in Nova Scotia reaches 99 per cent of the population. Advanced communications networks are expensive to build and operate, and the business case for expanded wireless coverage in rural and remote areas is often a challenge. We plan further investment but don’t have any announcements to make right now about enhanced service in the Municipality of Guysborough. We’re also always open to discuss funding partnerships with all levels of government to expand in areas that are unable to support only private investment by carriers like Bell or our competitors.”

This and the provincial government’s recent announcement about increased funding for cellular service does little to help Gillie sleep at night. He knows he could be receiving lifesaving heart monitoring — if only he had cell phone service.