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Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.’s infection and hospitalization rates have kept surging higher, leading hospitals to cancel ‘elective’ procedures – but many patients say there’s nothing optional about the treatments they’re waiting for

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Handouts, Liam Richards/The Canadian Press, Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Western Canada has become the epicentre of COVID-19′s fourth wave, with Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia leading the country in infections and hospital admissions. That reality has put incredible strain on those provinces’ health-care systems, which even before the recent wave were still catching up on procedures cancelled earlier in the pandemic.

Now, many surgeries and other medical procedures – the kind health officials refer to as “elective” or “non-urgent” – have once again been delayed. But for patients who have been waiting for care, those life-changing measures are not optional.

Here are some of the people whose medical care has been put on hold.

Helen Dickson, 1, Regina

Graham Dickson and Laura Weins found out they were going to have a baby in March of last year, the same day Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe announced a lockdown because of COVID-19. The pandemic has since overshadowed their child’s life – and health.

Helen was born three weeks early, after an induction, and underweight. A few months later, the new parents noticed Helen was missing early milestones. She wasn’t able to sit on her own or roll over. Eventually, Helen’s doctors concluded she may have cerebral palsy, though she’s still too young for an official diagnosis.

Helen was receiving regular physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and was expected to undergo surgery this month to help correct her crossed eyes. But the family was told in October that the therapy sessions were ending, and that the surgery would be delayed indefinitely owing to the pandemic’s strain on the health-care system.

The therapy was helping and Helen was showing noticeable improvement, but that progress has stalled. And the longer the surgery is delayed, the greater risk that she will have permanent vision problems that could be prevented with early intervention.

“Without getting that extra regular contact with them, we’re sort of at a standstill,” Mr. Dickson said. “She’s sort of stuck at the level she was a month ago.”

Mr. Dickson, who has become a vocal advocate for his daughter, said he doesn’t want Helen to jump the queue. He wants the Saskatchewan government, which has resisted imposing stronger public health measures, to take action to ensure unvaccinated COVID-19 patients don’t force the province to continue adding to the long list of cancelled medical procedures.

“You always want the best for your kids and to know that this was a completely avoidable situation, it’s infuriating,” he said. “I’m incredibly angry. I stay up at night worrying about her future.”

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Graham Dickson and Laura Weins hold baby Helen at their home. Mr. Dickson says he doesn't want Helen to jump the health-care queue to get the eye-correcting surgery she needs; he wants the province to take action on unvaccinated people who are filling hospitals.Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

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Christopher Brown's surgery for brain cancer was scheduled for September, but then Alberta's hospitals needed to clear ICU space for COVID-19 patients.Handout

Christopher Brown, 35, Calgary

Christopher Brown got his brain-cancer diagnosis on his 34th birthday: July 25, 2020. Now, when he goes for short walks around the corner to get the mail, he takes his phone and wears a watch so that, if he gets lost, his husband can use GPS technology to find him. His vision comes and goes. He has trouble focusing. He stutters as he searches for lost words. “I can’t tell you what your name is right now,” he said in a telephone interview.

Physical pain is part of the package. “There are days when I feel pain all over my body. There are days when I wake up and there is agony in just my eyes, my legs.”

A surgery designed to alleviate some of the problems, such as pain and unreliable motor skills, was scheduled for Sept. 9, 2021. But it was shelved to make way for COVID-19 patients needing ICU treatment. He got the call three days before. The podcaster has since resumed radiation treatments, but only after having to wait for space to open up because he dropped out of the rotation in preparation for surgery.

The Calgarian expects the surgery to be rescheduled in December. But he is reluctant to jinx it. “Tomorrow seems like a long way off,” he said. Every day that passes is another day with challenges, another day with cancer dominating his world.

Mr. Brown is married to Ricardo Miranda, who was an NDP MLA when that party was in government. He does not blame politicians for the crippled health-care system, and tries not to hold grudges. He wants the unvaccinated to get the shot, the unmasked to take the pandemic more seriously. He pointed to a victory party one newly elected Calgary city councillor held on election night last month. On TV, viewers watched the politician gather closely with supporters, indoors and unmasked.

“These are the reasons why I’m not having surgery right now,” Mr. Brown said.

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Akeema Smith was diagnosed with cancer in 2019. So far, she has had only one of the three or four operations she needs.Handout

Akeema Smith, 21, Edmonton

Akeema Smith’s fight with cancer was supposed to be nearly over by now.

First diagnosed in 2019, she successfully completed more than a year of immunotherapy. All that was left was removing the large birthmark on her breast where the cancer was first detected – and where, her doctors warned her, it would almost certainly return without surgery.

She had the first of three or four operations in June. The second was set for August but it was postponed, initially rescheduled for November. Now it is delayed again.

“It’s been over a year of me waiting to get surgery and having that pressure on me all the time. Am I going to get cancer again? When is this going to happen?” she said. “Going through it and being so excited to be done but knowing that if I don’t get this surgery soon, I could have to go through it all over again – that’s hard.”

The surgeries must be done about eight weeks apart, so even when she gets another date, it will be a long process alternating between hospital visits and recovery. That has made it impossible to get a job and has made her schooling difficult, though online classes have helped and Ms. Smith, who is a psychology major at MacEwan University in Edmonton, said her professors have been doing their best to accommodate her.

“I feel like I can’t move on from this chapter,” she said. “Cancer, because it happened to me, is always going to be a part of my past and who I am. But I just want to close that door and be able to move on to the next period in my life.”

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Erin Luyendyk of Invermere, B.C., is left in limbo by Alberta's rules for out-of-province patients.Handout

Erin Luyendyk, 38, Invermere, B.C.

Erin Luyendyk lives in B.C.’s Columbia Valley, but it’s the situation in Alberta that has prevented her from receiving surgery for her long-standing endometriosis.

There are no female B.C. gynecologists within driving distance of her community who can perform several procedures, including the insertion of an IUD, that could help her condition. So Ms. Luyendyk, who is a nutritionist, expected a year ago to see a gynecologist in Canmore, about two hours away. But she’s been told she can’t get a date because Alberta has stopped performing surgeries on out-of-province patients.

Every wave of the pandemic pushes her treatment further into the future. As she waits, the $400 IUD she had to purchase out-of-pocket has expired, which means she will need to buy another when she finally gets a surgery date.

She is left exhausted by a condition that can see her lose a cup of blood in an hour. “I’m completely exhausted, completely depleted,” Ms. Luyendyk said. “I’m barely breathing at this point.”

Like many patients who are stuck on seemingly never-ending waiting lists, she puts the blame on unvaccinated people admitted to hospital.

“I can’t wait any longer. I shouldn’t have to bleed to death because of other people’s stupid choices. It isn’t fair.”

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Tyrone Raddi poses for a selfie with wife, Connie Gordon, and son Jakob Lafferty. The family lives in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, and is waiting for a surgery appointment in Edmonton to treat Jakob's sports injury.Handout

Jakob Lafferty, 17, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT

The phone call could come any day for Jakob Lafferty to head to an Edmonton hospital. He’s awaiting surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, a sports injury that causes constant discomfort and pain, and has limited his ability to be physically active or help his family with hunting and fishing.

But getting to the hospital will not be simple. From his home in the remote community of Tuktoyaktuk, he and his father, Tyrone Raddi, need to drive more than 180 kilometres on a gravel road to Inuvik and then take three flights – to Norman Wells, Yellowknife and finally Edmonton. If they leave at 9 a.m. and there are seats available on all of those flights, they can get there in less than 12 hours.

Jakob and his father have already done this once. They arrived in Edmonton on a Sunday in September, the day before Jakob’s scheduled surgery date, only to find out the procedure had been abruptly cancelled along with thousands of others.

“We were on our way down to Edmonton, excited that he’s going to finally have this done and he can get back to being the active teenager that he was,” Mr. Raddi said.

Mr. Raddi, who is Inuvialuit, said it’s especially difficult on his family because they rely on hunting and fishing for their food, which is otherwise many times more expensive than in major cities thousands of kilometres to the south. “Our culture and our lifestyle here involves a lot of hunting and travelling on the land, and that’s something that he’s not comfortable doing now because of the pain,” he said.

“Me and his mother are constantly working, so we don’t have the time to go out and do these things any more, and we would rely on him to do it for us. So now that’s having an effect on our food situation.”

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Patricia Vilcsak is still waiting for dates for her goiter surgery and hysterectomy.Handout

Patricia Vilcsak, 49, Edmonton

Patricia Vilcsak is waiting on two surgeries: one on her neck to deal with a large goitre, and a hysterectomy to address precancerous cells. The first was scheduled for July; she was in the hospital, waiting to be wheeled to the operating room, when that one was cancelled. The second surgery was booked for August, but nixed because of the overburdened health-care system.

“This goitre is cutting off half my windpipe,” she said in a text message, noting the growth is getting bigger. “My voice is disappearing. I have to eat a certain way because I can’t swallow. I have heart palpitations because it is one of the side effects.

“I am in a lot of pain, in both my throat and uterus.”

Ms. Vilcsak used to be full of energy, motivated and in shape. She has since gained weight and sleeps more than usual. “I am depressed and making dinner is the biggest challenge of my day.”

She took two months off work because she could no longer handle the pain and stress. While her employer is supportive and understanding, she had to take on debt to pay the bills, she said. Her company offers a program for psychological support, but she said she is too tired to call. The 49-year-old also put her schooling for disaster and emergency management on hold.

The surgical delays make her angry, but she does not know who, exactly, to blame. “Something has to be done to our health-care system because it is going to fall apart,” she wrote. “People are burning out and COVID isn’t going away any time soon.”

The Edmontonian’s surgeries have not yet been rescheduled, and while doctors tell her she is on the top of the list, she remains skeptical. She assumes she will have to wait a year. “There is always a more serious case,” Ms. Vilcsak said. “The longer the wait, the farther I go down the list.”

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Megan Moore of Regina broke her leg eight years ago and has needed multiple surgeries since, the latest of which got postponed because of increased COVID-19 cases.Handout

Megan Moore, 29, Regina

Megan Moore warned her boss over the summer that she was weeks away from surgery to address severe arthritis in her ankle, a lingering and painful complication from a broken leg eight years ago.

Ms. Moore was told her surgery – her sixth since she broke her leg – would likely be scheduled for late August or early September, and that she should be ready to head to the hospital with as little as 24 hours notice. But the procedure was abruptly put on hold – indefinitely – amid the surge in COVID-19 infections. It was the third time she had been told to prepare for surgery only to have it delayed until some unnamed date.

Every month that goes by without the surgery is another month of chronic pain, and another month of damage as the problems in her ankle affect other parts of her body such as her hips and back. “I now have 12 additional months of damage that could have been prevented,” she said. “It’s scary and it’s frustrating and it’s disappointing. This could have been over and I could have been feeling better. It’s hard not to be angry. It’s hard not to feel frustrated and let down by what feels like negligence.”

As she waits, Ms. Moore, who works at the University of Regina, is left struggling with pain and mobility issues as she pictures a life after surgery. She wants to run after her dog. Go for long walks. Jump off a diving board. Make it through a trip to the grocery store without having to stop for a rest.

When she hears health officials talk about “elective” surgeries, she knows they are talking about her. “It makes me feel entirely dismissed,” she said. “Just because they’re elective doesn’t mean they’re not important. It just means I’m not going to die. And I shouldn’t have to have death staring over my shoulder in order to get access to necessary health care.”

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Robin Wood needs twice as many calories as a child her age and weight, her mother says, and the pandemic delayed the procedure to get her a gastronomic tube.Handout

Robin Wood, 1, Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.

For a bedtime snack, Robin Wood’s parents used to give her Haagen-Dazs ice cream blended with bacon and bacon fat.

Robin is 17 months old, and has a rare neuromuscular condition called hyperekplexia, which is an excessive startle disorder, and hypotonia, or low muscle tone. When Robin left the hospital as an infant, she had a feeding tube and was on oxygen.

Medication allowed her to ditch the supplemental oxygen and, at six months, the feeding tube. But she couldn’t put on weight. Robin needs double the calories that toddlers her size and age require, according to her mother Jen Wood. Robin’s family fed her 900 calories a day, but she only gained 0.9 kilograms between November 2020 and August 2021. At the same time, she grew 10 centimetres. “We were feeding her the most ridiculous thing,” Ms. Wood said, explaining the high-fat bedtime snack. “Every single meal, we were adding oil directly to it for extra calories.”

In August, her medical team decided to surgically insert a gastrostomy tube, known as a G-tube, so Robin could access supplemental calories. The surgery was scheduled for Sept. 27. However, on Sept. 16, Ms. Wood received a call postponing it indefinitely.

Robin’s family advocated for her on social media and through local news media, and the provincial New Democratic Party picked up the story. Two days after NDP Leader Rachel Notley talked publicly about Robin’s situation, Ms. Wood received another call from the surgery department – this time informing her that the toddler’s case was now considered an emergency.

Robin’s surgery took place on Oct. 12, but COVID-19 still created challenges at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton. Her breathing was laboured after the operation. An ICU team determined she should be moved to intensive care, but the plan was scrapped minutes later. “They said there was no ICU space available,” Ms. Wood said. “And that they were going to be having to determine who was in need of space the most.”

Hospital officials moved Robin to the cardiac unit, which has equipment comparable to official ICUs. Now, Robin is home and rapidly gaining weight. But Alberta’s surgical backlog still haunts the family, who live in Fort Saskatchewan. The G-tube surgery requires a follow-up operation within three months. Robin also needs a “couple” of eye surgeries and requires an operation to correct her hips, her mother said.

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Drew Moore of Delta, B.C., was supposed to undergo the first of several joint-replacement surgeries in August. The procedure was postponed twice.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Drew Moore, 66, Delta, B.C.

Before his arthritis became debilitating, Drew Moore led a healthy, active life. He cycled up to 100 kilometres at a time, walked frequently and went to the gym, where squats were his favourite workout. But as the pain and inflammation in his knees and hips began to worsen two years ago, these activities became increasingly difficult, and then impossible. In recent months, he has spent most of his time in a wheelchair.

Mr. Moore, 66, was supposed to undergo the first of several joint-replacement surgeries in August, but the procedure was postponed twice. He says his surgeon told him it was owing to COVID-19 pressures on the hospital. “They were limited in the amount of surgeries they could do in any given week, understandably, because the hospital was being somewhat overwhelmed,” said Mr. Moore, of Delta, B.C. “It was pretty angering. I said, if you hear about somebody riding on the back of a motorcycle with a croquet mallet, whacking people who aren’t getting vaccinated, that will be me.”

Without surgery, Mr. Moore was taking several medications daily to deal with the intense pain that on occasion left him sobbing. He felt sorry for his wife, whom he said “watches the guy that she loves in agony and can’t do a thing.”

Mr. Moore said his condition also affected his role as a specialized foster parent who cares for adolescents with complex needs. “We’re moving one kid out because my mobility does not allow me to do my job any more. I could have made a difference in this kid’s life.”

On Nov. 4, Mr. Moore was able to receive his first surgery, on his left hip. He was in positive spirits, and optimistic about his situation turning around.

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