THUNDER BAY, ONT. — When the Umbrella Clinic was facing permanent closure in January, the clinic’s two registered nurses and their administrator purchased it and took it over.
After much litigation and sourcing of doctors, the clinic is reopening in August with appointment registration beginning on July 25.
Founded in 2018 by Dr. Annabella Zawada, who was joined by registered nurse Eldonna Richard and their administrator, Janice Webb, they hired registered nurse Hillary Stezenko to make up the Umbrella team.
The clinic fills a gap in Thunder Bay health services by providing medical and gender-affirming health care for the transgender community and people who identify as transgender and non-binary.
An accident late last year resulted in the death of Zawada, leaving the clinic without a doctor and facing closure. The clinic was a dream for Zawada, who recognized the limitations and gaps that the community was facing with sexual health care.
“We’ve gone through quite a bit of change over the last nine months,” Stezenko said.
“Our main goal is that we wanted to be able to sustain Bella’s legacy. We thought that was something that was incredibly important because she had this dream and she was able to bring it to fruition and provide essential services that were widely otherwise inaccessible.
“So the three of us, aside from the fact that we love our jobs, wanted to be able to continue on with the good work that she was doing.”
Stezenko says there has been a lot of change and a lot of behind-the-scenes things that have happened to restructure and reopen.
“But we’re finally at a place where we’re able to start providing those services again,” she said.
The women have acquired two doctors, one who will serve as their main doctor and another who will work on a part-time casual basis.
“The nurses do the majority of the workflows and the majority of the appointments. . . . They’re the ones interacting with the clients on a daily basis,” Richard said.
“A huge factor is that within our Northwestern region, we’ve consistently had high rates of sexually transmitted infections, and really, there’s not a lot of places to go for that. There’s the sexual health clinic at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, but they are kind of limited in what they can do and are often overrun and have shorter hours and it’s just not as accessible. A lot of times people don’t feel comfortable going to a family physician that maybe was there (most of their life).”
Prior to the December shutdown, the clinic remained busy and didn’t close during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have some clients that come in consistently for that gender-affirming care, but because of the nature of our services, a majority of our clients come and see us for a specific reason,” Stezenko said. “We don’t have many rostered clients as a family physician would, but we do have a lot of clients that come to us for a test, or for symptoms or if they have a concern and they’re welcome to come and see us again, anytime they have any new needs.”
Richard added that the pandemic had an impact on the clinic.
“Similar to other healthcare services, we were able to move to a phone-appointment based model fairly quickly. Our team is extremely efficient and we were doing that within a few weeks of having everybody home,” she said.
“The big thing now is we’re looking forward to seeing what the next stage looks like now that the landscape of COVID is changing. I think we’re really excited to get back to some semblance of normal.”
The Umbrella Clinic is an independent and privately owned health-care centre that receives some support from the health unit for antibiotics and vaccination serums. They are full medical service providers and operate their own phlebotomy lab on site. Funding has been a challenge, for which they continue to seek. Green Ontario health cards or a university health insurance plan are accepted for their services.
Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal