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B.C. premier meets with patient who took herself off transplant list due to costs

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Christina Derksen-Unrau was in Victoria this week on a mission to bring change.

“We raised the issue of the inequities in rural health care for people like myself who have to travel to Vancouver,” said the Princeton woman, who went public earlier this year with her health-care struggles.

She needs a double lung transplant, but discovered she’d first have to save tens of thousands of dollars to live in Vancouver for three to six months after surgery at Vancouver General Hospital. She temporarily took herself off the transplant list.

Derksen-Unrau went to the B.C. capital to share her story with a number of elected officials, including the premier.

“Obviously a very moving story and a very troubling story,” said Premier David Eby of his meeting with Derksen-Unrau.

“I have gone back and asked the Ministry of Health to work on this. It’s a housing issue like so many issues that we face,” the premier explained.

“I do think there’s a good opportunity for us to potentially be even more efficient in how we operate in terms of housing for people struggling with health-care issues, who have to come into the big city from rural areas in the province,” Eby said.

William Hastings is one of those people trying to afford months of after-transplant care in Vancouver while paying for his home in Courtenay.

“Anybody coming from out of town where they have to cover two households, one in Vancouver and their own household, it’s very, very daunting. It’s a very, very expensive endeavour,” he said, explaining that his wife can’t work as she is required to care for him.

He’s fortunate family and friends are helping with accommodation, but said the expenses still add up.

“It’s a mental health thing enough just to deal with the transplant, let alone to deal with the financial burden of having to go through this whole process. It’s just another stress that people don’t need,” said Hastings, who at the same time considers himself extremely fortunate.

“I’m so blessed to have been chosen to have a new set of lungs,” he said.

Last month, Hastings was in Vancouver General and struggling to stay alive.

“On March 26, I was just about dead,” Hastings said. “Things looked very bleak.”

But the following day, he received a double lung transplant and said it’s given him a second chance at life.

“I have nothing but praise for the whole program at VGH. It’s been amazing,” he said.

B.C. Rural Health Network’s spokesperson said there are about 150 transplant patients each year from outside the Lower Mainland.

“It’s often years and years of follow up care required and you have to be able to afford to reach that care and many can not,” said the organization’s Paul Adams.

He said a rural B.C. woman, who couldn’t afford the expenses linked to out-of-town care, died in March.

“She had to have a second single lung transplant and then she just didn’t have the resources to do the follow up care in Vancouver and she had organ rejection and unfortunately she didn’t make it,” he said of the tragedy.

Adams said that in addition to much-needed accommodation for out-of-town patients, B.C. should also look at so-called patient navigators – someone who would help coordinate the dozens of tests required for transplant patients.

The goal, he said, would be to cut down on visits to Vancouver or other urban areas by having multiple tests done around the same time. He said this would reduce the number of expensive trips rural patients have to make.

Adams and Derksen-Unrau both said there are many people to be thanked for helping them in their work to make health services access more equitable.

Meanwhile, Derksen-Unrau has fundraised to cover her after-surgery costs. She said whatever money she doesn’t need will be donated to another transplant patient.

She has one more test to complete and expects to be back on the organ transplant list May 1.

Hastings said it’s important for those waiting for organ donation not to give up hope and to seek help if they are struggling with the financial implications.

“There’s always a way,” he said.

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