A woman from Alberta was expecting a 6 month wait for surgery. Two painful years later, she’s still waiting

A woman in northeastern Alberta has been waiting in pain for nearly two and a half years for surgery to correct a severe curvature in her spine.

« It got progressively worse over the years, » said Sarah MacPhail, a therapist and clinical social worker in Cold Lake, Alta., 300 kilometers northeast of Edmonton.

MacPhail was a teenager when she was diagnosed with scoliosis, where the spine curves from side to side. In cases of significant curvature – S-shaped or C-shaped – this can contribute to chronic pain and breathing problems.

In 2019, a doctor said she would be a good candidate for spine surgery to correct it, but expects a six-month wait. She joined the waiting list for spine surgery in July 2020.

Now, more than two years later, MacPhail says she’s stalled at number nine on the waitlist. His symptoms – chronic headaches, back and neck pain, breathing problems, reduced mobility and fatigue – worsened, forcing him to take medical leave.

« The pain increased, the curves increased, » she said.

« I regularly have very severe headaches, to the point where I just have to sit in the dark and do nothing at all for about 24 hours straight. »

‘Too long’

Alberta Health Services (AHS) said it could not comment specifically on MacPhail’s case. However, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said he was told a two-and-a-half-year wait would be an anomaly.

A statement from AHS noted that once a decision has been made to proceed with elective back surgery, AHS strives to book surgeries that will take place within six to 12 months. A website that reports wait times for surgeries says that in October, 90% of Albertans requiring spine or back surgery were waiting about 52 weeks.

« We know that in some areas the waiting lists for surgeries are too long, » the statement said. « That’s why we’re focusing on doing more surgeries, and we’re seeing success in that. »

X-ray images show Sarah MacPhail’s spine. MacPhail struggled with chronic pain while awaiting spinal surgery to correct his scoliosis. (Sarah McPhail)

Alberta is using a tool that provides information to surgeons about which patients « are the sickest and need surgery urgently » to help prioritize the wait list, AHS said.

AHS said surgery delays can be due to many factors, including changes in patient condition or the availability of patients and surgeons.

The adult waiting list is currently at 70,225, up from around 68,000 in February 2020.

“We are funding more surgeries — including more orthopedic surgeries at licensed surgical facilities — to free up operating rooms and surgery beds in hospitals for more complex surgeries like this,” said Steve Buick, Health Minister Jason Copping’s press secretary to CBC. News.

“We care about patients who wait too long and we try to make sure anyone who contacts our office gets all the information they need from AHS or another service provider, but we don’t. have no role in clinical decisions regarding the care of individual patients. »

Risks of delay

There are risks in delaying corrective scoliosis surgery, said University of Calgary pain specialist Dr. Kathryn Birnie.

“You have a huge impact of having to wait long periods of time for surgery, especially if you’re living with pain before surgery,” Birnie said.

Waiting for treatment without proper pain management can increase the risk of developing chronic pain before surgery — and it can negatively impact the recovery process, Birnie said.

« If you don’t have chronic pain before spinal fusion surgery, it’s still surgery that is the onset of chronic pain for some people, » she said. « If you have chronic pain before surgery, you are at increased risk of continuing to experience chronic pain and potentially worsening pain after your surgery. »

Birnie said the provincial and federal governments have made progress in improving accessibility and treatment options for people with pain, but more work needs to be done.

« Chronic pain is still under-recognized as a public health emergency and as a public health issue in terms of the number of people in Canada it affects and the cost, » Birnie said.

« Because it’s not life-threatening and the pain is invisible and it’s heavily stigmatized, it’s often dismissed and ignored. »

« I feel insignificant »

MacPhail said she reached out to her surgeon, Alberta Health Services, her MPP and Alberta’s health minister, hoping to receive answers about why her surgery was delayed.

She said each level directed her somewhere else, ultimately leaving her with no answer or solution.

« It makes me feel like I’m insignificant. It makes me feel like what I’m going through isn’t worthwhile, it’s not important enough, » MacPhail said.

« It makes me very desperate and it makes me feel like an inconvenience because now I’m bothering people. »


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