After experiencing chest pains, Peter (Alo) White received a call last week from his doctor telling him to come to the hospital, so the 62-year-old elder and traditional knowledge keeper drove 75 kilometres north — from his home to the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora, Ont.
White, from Naotkamegwanning First Nation in Treaty 3 territory, was admitted to the intensive-care unit (ICU) and told by a cardiologist he needed a pacemaker.
“What I’m told is if I go to sleep, I’ll never wake up,” he said. “It’s very difficult hearing that and knowing that … there’s nothing they can do here except monitor me [or] life resuscitation, if my heart stops.”
However, the hospital in Kenora doesn’t perform heart pacemaker surgeries, so a cardiologist 200 kilometres away — at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg — agreed to complete the operation, according to White.
A date and time for the transfer had not yet been set, but White said he was told he could be sent to the Manitoba hospital at any moment.
“I already had my bag packed.”
But on Tuesday morning, White learned his transfer was denied.
“I am stuck. This is a matter of life or death and I need help,” he told CBC News in an interview that evening.
Operation rescheduled for Thunder Bay
Since that interview, White’s care team was able to arrange another transfer, to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. But the operation won’t happen until Friday, and instead of a “2½-hour drive,” White will have to be flown more than 500 kilometres east, he said.
White said it’s been a long, exhausting process, but he appreciates the hard work by his doctors and nurses to get him the care he needs.
While he’s getting the pacemaker “at a time where it’s still within the safe zone,” longer delays and further transfers for critical medical procedures have become more common for patients in that part of northwestern Ontario, said Ray Racette, president and chief executive officer of the Lake of the Woods District Hospital.
Manitoba restricting access to patients from Ontario
In March 2021, as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed and with ICUs across Canada stressed, Manitoba implemented a policy limiting health-care transfers from Ontario to just people at risk of life and limb.
Earlier in the pandemic, Manitoba had restricted health-care transfers from most of Ontario with the exception of patients from the northwest, in recognition of the proximity and existing institutional relationships.
A five-year memorandum of understanding between Ontario and Manitoba that was signed in 2018 formalized the relationship and payment arrangements to facilitate access to Winnipeg-based acute-care services for patients from northwestern Ontario.
But these additional restrictions have made referrals more difficult for clinicians in Kenora, as their access to Winnipeg has been severely restricted. It also means Winnipeg-based clinicians may agree to have a patient from northwestern Ontario referred, but won’t necessarily get approval, said Racette.
‘That’s very frustrating’
That puts clinicians back at square one, trying to find another place where the particular service is offered, he added.
“That’s very frustrating, of course, for the clinicians and for the patients who are waiting to be transferred,” said Racette.
The policy restricting health-care access to patients from northwestern Ontario is in place until at least July 16, according to an emailed statement from Shared Health Manitoba. But Racette said he hopes the policy will be lifted as soon as possible “so that we can return to more normal access to our preferred referral network.”
Peter White agrees.
In a text message to CBC News after learning about the new plan to receive care in Thunder Bay, White said: “I hope other people don’t have to go through this.”
Listen to Peter (Alo) White’s full interview with CBC’s Superior Morning here:
7:30Peter White: Stuck In Kenora