With surgery on hold, Manitoba woman fighting pain looks to the U.S. for care

Barbie Shukster keeps a bottle of Tylenol 3s nearby to help get her through her day.

The retired gym teacher, who craves physical exercise, is in so much pain she says has to take six-eight of the pills with Codeine a day. Even a short walk two houses down her street proves taxing on her body.

Shukster is one of the thousands of Manitobans waiting for surgery who’ve been left in the lurch due to a strained health care system struggling to keep up with an aggressive third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel like there’s a knife in my body, in different places at all times, in a different spot,” said Shukster, 67.

Barbie Shukster used to love kayaking but now she says she’s barely able to walk down the block of her street. She uses a cane sometimes to assist her due to debilitating back pain. (Submitted by Barbie Shukster)

Shukster is waiting for spinal stenosis surgery to put an end to chronic back pain. She said she was told it would be one to two years before she’d be operated on before the pandemic started.

Now she fears it will be years longer and is considering getting the surgery in the United States at a steep starting price of $60,000.

“People take out mortgages to buy houses and people take out car loans. Do I need to take out a hospital loan so that I can have surgery in another country? Because that’s what it’s come to.”

The province has cancelled most non-urgent surgeries and redeployed operating staff to ICUs that are filled. It comes as at least 18 critically ill patients have been airlifted to Ontario and the military prepares to possibly fly even move.

Patients losing control of bowels

Doctors say patients who are waiting at home with serious health issues including cancer aren’t able to get into an OR.

“There are people now waiting to have their spines operated on that are losing control of the bowels and bladder, becoming paralyzed. And in fact, the province has now started transferring these patients to U.S. institutions for surgery,” said Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU doctor and cardiac anesthesiologist.

Jacobsohn said six patients have died while waiting for cardiac surgery when urging the provincial government to shut down non-essential businesses and issue a stay-at-home order. His plea is something the premier and province’s top doctor have repeatedly resisted while incorrectly stating Manitoba has had some of the toughest restrictions in Canada.

At a press conference on May 7th, chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa warned the impact on surgical capacity was likely to be significant while adding life-threatening surgeries would be prioritized and some patients may need to be shipped outside of Winnipeg.

Jacobson, who estimated about 20,000 patients are waiting for deferred surgery, said despite ‘gargantuan efforts,’ only the direst surgeries are happening.

‘Emotional roller coaster’ 

“It is clear that cancers are progressing and are not being operated on. People who have aneurysms, the aneurysms are bursting at home and people are dying.”

He said he was aware of a patient who was ready to be taken into the OR last week for the third time and then had his surgery abruptly cancelled within 30 minutes of the operation.

“It’s been an emotional and mental and physical roller coaster for our patients,” said Dr. Christine Peschken, a rheumatologist.

Barbie Shukster expressed frustration in the government’s handling of the pandemic and said she supports doctors’ calls for a shutdown. (Submitted by Barbie Shukster)

“There’s a limit for how long we can do that, and we thought it would be better by now. Instead, we’ve got the entire health care system that’s in danger of collapse. Our patients are starting to show up with rising complications because of lack of care. And now our clinics are barely functioning because of staff redeployments.”

The doctors repeated a plea for the province to implement a stay-at-home order and a complete closure of non-essential businesses including malls which are allowed to be open with 10 per cent capacity.

“In Ontario. You can’t go to indoor shopping malls right now yet we’re asking them to take our patients. That’s absurd,” said Dan Roberts, a critical care physician at the Health Sciences Centre.

Shukster, who misses getting in a kayak and going for a bike ride, said she isn’t sure how much longer she can wait in pain.

“I promoted physical activity all my life and it’s come to the point where I can’t be physically active. I want to be physically active and I can’t be.”