Recent grad brings diagnostic services to Alberta town
August 10, 2022
ST. PAUL, Alta. – Amy Bespalko (pictured), an ultrasound tech from Alberta, has started her own medical imaging clinic. While looking for a job in 2021, she somehow agreed to start her own clinic instead, in her hometown of St. Paul. Located 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, no such clinic previously existed there.
“Is that even allowed?” Bespalko remembers thinking at the time. “Can a 23-year-old ultrasound tech who went to school for two years open her own clinic?”
As it turns out, she can. Shift Imaging opened its doors in St. Paul earlier this year, providing diagnostic ultrasound services for the town and several surrounding communities in east-central Alberta. Bespalko’s branch is the third franchise for the company, which was founded by Adrian Reagan, with other locations in Grande Prairie and Fairview.
The new clinic doesn’t just fill a gap in terms of medical services. It shows that smaller communities can attract and retain talent in the face of an overall population shift to larger urban centres. Bespalko’s story took determination and patience.
By the time Bespalko first contacted Reagan, she already had her sights set on returning to her hometown. After graduating from NAIT, Bespalko worked as a sonographer in Edmonton and then in Grande Prairie – but only because the hospital back in St. Paul wasn’t hiring.
Her initial pitch to Reagan was: “If you’re ever interested in opening a clinic in St. Paul, I will come work for you.” But they quickly realized that it made more sense for Bespalko to run the clinic herself, under the Shift brand, since she already knew not just the local community, but also its needs.
“I was born and raised here,” she says. “I have always known that it’s been underserved. We’ve always struggled even to keep doctors and provide imaging. I just knew it was something that was needed.”
The St. Paul branch of Shift provides a range of diagnostic services that were not previously available to the town of approximately 6,000 people. These include echocardiography, nuchal translucency (which estimates the risk of a baby being born with Down syndrome), peripheral arterial ultrasounds, thyroid ultrasounds and soft-tissue ultrasounds.
By bringing these services directly into a smaller community like St. Paul, Bespalko and Shift are making healthcare more accessible and convenient than ever before.
“It’s a huge benefit for patients to not have to make such a long commute, especially on our roads in winter, plus the costs and the time involved,” says Joy Young, an instructor and clinical liaison at NAIT’s Diagnostic Medical Sonography program.
“It’s great if they don’t have to travel so far, especially for something as simple as an ultrasound.”
Maureen Miller, mayor of St. Paul, agrees. Miller was already one of Bespalko’s biggest fans – she happens to have known the entire Bespalko family since Amy was a child – and she says that the arrival of the new clinic has made the imaging process much simpler.
As an example, Miller says the local hospital is unable to provide imaging of any kind for children under the age of seven. Before Shift opened its doors, if a young child felt ill after something as simple as swallowing a penny, they would have to be driven all the way to Edmonton for treatment.
While the idea for the clinic came together quickly, the journey to actually opening for business proved much trickier.
After spending months applying for loans, purchasing computers and equipment, and hiring a receptionist, Bespalko sent in her package to the provincial accreditation body. Her plan was to open the clinic to the public on Nov. 1, 2021, pending a final in-person visit and approval from the college.
But at the last minute, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta contacted Bespalko and told her that her application was on hold. The college was revising standards for certain procedures for all clinics.
After months, another review was scheduled for February before it, too, was postponed. Meanwhile Bespalko was paying rent, an employee’s salary, and loan interest – on a business that was ready to open its doors, but wasn’t allowed to.
“I definitely fought hard for this.”
At times Bespalko questioned her decision to open the clinic in the first place. But she was buoyed by the support of the community around her, who recognized the value of the clinic and advocated on her behalf.
Finally, the approval came on April 1. Shift opened to the public later that month, and has been in business ever since.
“I definitely fought hard for this,” Bespalko says. “It would’ve been easy for me to give up and just wait for a hospital position to open up. But knowing that it was needed made me want to keep pushing.”
She says the only thing that would have stopped her is if she had completely run out of money.
Bespalko is already looking forward to expanding her services to the community in the coming months, including mammography and outpatient x-ray, were she to be permitted. No matter what, she remains grateful for the opportunity in front of her.
“It’s just where I wanted to be,” she says. “It’s not about making more money or having more clients. It was more about getting these services to St. Paul, because this is where I want to be and where I want to raise a family. There aren’t a lot of communities that can say they have an ultrasound clinic like ours.”