Treacherous driving conditions in last week’s snowstorm have highlighted the plight of dialysis patients in Chilliwack and the eastern Fraser Valley.
“Too many people risk life and limb travelling out of town to receive treatment that is so needed to keep them alive,” says Chilliwack resident Elaina Wugalter.
She has started a Facebook page to raise awareness of the issue, and to start a drive to get a dialysis clinic here in Chilliwack for patients with chronic kidney disease.
Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz is asking Fraser Health Authority officials for a meeting this week to discuss the issue “and how we can better serve the people who need this service to stay alive.”
“It’s not an optional service,” she said. “They need it to stay alive.”
Yet while provincial officials were warning people last week to stay off the roads, Wugalter said her husband Morris – and other patients in Hope, Agassiz and Harrison Hot Springs – had to risk snowblown highways to get to the Abbotsford Regional Hospital for dialysis treatments.
“It (kidney disease) may not happen to your family – please God it doesn’t – but it should concern everybody,” she said. “If these people don’t have this treatment – they die.”
FHA spokesman Roy Thorpe-Dorward said health officials “certainly understand” the concerns of dialysis patients, but their numbers in the eastern Fraser Valley don’t justify opening a clinic in Chilliwack.
There are also other treatment and transportation options open to the 24 dialysis patients currently living in the area from Chilliwack to Agassiz and Hope.
“Because of the specialized nature of the equipment and the staff required, there needs to be a certain number (of patients) to be feasible,” he explained.
And Chilliwack isn’t the only community in the health region without a dialysis unit, he pointed out.
Burnaby is another, although patients there don’t have to travel as far to dialysis units located in Surrey and New Westminster hospitals for treatment, he said.
Patients in the eastern Fraser Valley also have the option of taking a taxi to Abbotsford, or arranging a ride with the SN hospital transfer van, a service similar to handyDART.
Normally, patients must pay for these services, Thorpe-Dorward said, but the FHA will pay for patients having “a particularly difficult time” getting to dialysis appointments.
There is also a specially-trained nurse at the clinic who can help patients manage their conditions at home for a few days, until they are able to get to another dialysis session.
But Mayor Gaetz said dialysis isn’t just for patients with kidney disease, but also for diabetics whose kidneys and livers are beginning to fail.
And Chilliwack isn’t isolated from the growth of that disease, she said, which is reaching epidemic proportions in North America.
Gaetz agreed that the capital costs of a dialysis clinic could be raised through the taxes collected by the Fraser Valley Regional Hospital District, but operational costs would need to come from the B.C. government.
Former city councillor Diane Janzen, who chaired the mayor’s advisory committee on health, said she couldn’t recall the issue of a dialysis clinic coming up at committee meetings.
But, now, speaking as a private citizen, Janzen said maybe the time has come.
“I think it’s something to take a look at, because it affects an amazing number of people,” she said, and it’s part of the larger issue of local access to health services.
Reduction of health services in Chilliwack was a major concern here when the new hospital and cancer centre was being built in Abbotsford under the regionalization plan.
Taxpayers in Chilliwack and other Fraser Valley communities contributed $72 million toward construction of that hospital through taxes collected by the FVRHD.
Gwen O’Mahony, an NDP activist who is running for the party’s nomination in the Chilliwack-Hope by-election, said she’s been told by a provincial health official that the problem is not the lack of dialysis equipment, but the nurses trained to operate them.
Yet O’Mahony, who works in a health-related field, said she has never heard of any recruitment drive by the BC government to train dialysis nurses.
“This is a serious issue,” she said. “Why isn’t there a recruitment drive before we get to this point?”
She said the Chilliwack community has “a rich history of generosity” and has raised millions of dollars in the past to fund purchase of a CT scanner and to help pay for emergency room renovations at the Chilliwack General Hospital.
Thorpe-Dorward said opening a new clinic in Chilliwack is “not something we’re looking at at the moment,” but as the number of patients change in this fast-growing health region “it’s always something that would be open for consideration.”
The Alberta government has operated two mobile dialysis units to bring the service to the patients since 2010.