CBC Investigates

Brain-injured Abbotsford woman fights rejection by G.F. Strong

A brain-injured Abbotsford woman claims she is being denied service at G.F. Strong, B.C.'s largest rehabilitation centre for brain injuries, because she does not live in Vancouver.

'Because I live on the wrong side of the river they will not see me ... it's frustrating'

Michel White in seizure clinic in 1995 after her initial surgery to remove a tumour in her brain that has left her with life-long medical struggles.

A brain-injured Abbotsford woman claims she is being denied service at G.F. Strong, B.C.'s largest rehabilitation centre for brain injuries, because she does not live in Vancouver.

Michel White says everyone in B.C. should have access to the top level, one-stop-healthcare that G.F. Strong offers.

However, health ministry officials deny that G.F. Strong was ever a "broader based province-wide centre of care."

The top rehab facility run by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority serves patients in a catchment, including Vancouver, North Shore, Richmond as well as parts of North Western B.C. 

But brain care advocates say the G.F. Strong made exceptions over the years for patients from other parts of B.C. This stopped for Fraser Health authority patients about four years ago.

I live on the wrong side of the river, and because I live on the wrong side of the river they will not see me.- Michel White, brain-injured patient from Abbotsford, B.C.

"It was all very quiet and very under the radar," said White, who believes brain injured people across B.C. deserve access to the same level of service.

"I would like to be a voice for those who don't have a voice, or are afraid to speak up," said the 52-year-old former legal secretary.

Vancouver Coastal health authorities say White can access services through the Fraser Health Authority, and it is better for people with brain injuries to get care closer to home.

Michel White and her daughter, Elya, after White's brain surgery in 2013. (Elya White)

White says she wants to see more facilities like G.F. Strong, where all services are under one roof — and patients are not waiting six months or more for much-needed help.

White was treated previously at G.F. Strong but says she was rejected for rehabilitation services on October 29, 2015 in a letter from the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority which read:

"The Acquired Brain Injury Program at G.F. Strong does not provide outpatient therapy to clients from the Fraser Health Authority."

"I don't understand why they are not accepting a former patient ... they have seen me before and have my file. It's like having to start all over again. It does not make sense to me," she said.

Both her doctor and neurologist referred her to G.F. Strong.

Michel White and her daugher, Elya, after White suffered seizures in 1995. (Michel White)

"I live on the wrong side of the river, and because I live on the wrong side of the river they will not see me," White added. "It's not the same, because now I'm going to have to travel here and travel there — it's not all under one roof."

Carol Paetkau of the Fraser Brain Injury Association said very few patients outside of Vancouver are accepted by G.F. Strong.

"Personally, if I had a family member that was affected by a brain injury, that would be where I want them to go. That's the centre of excellence.That's where the expertise is. So to me living out here in the Fraser Valley not having that resource is disappointing," siad Paetkau.

A spokesperson for VCH said that White is not eligible because there is an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) recovery program she can access through Fraser Health. 

"While we cannot discuss the specifics of the patient, we can say that [Michel White has] not accessed outreach services at GF Strong for more than a decade. While we understand the patient is eager to return to G.F. Strong, we have been told that she is to undergo an assessment in [the] Fraser Health [district], the health authority in which she lives, shortly."

"Only when that assessment is done will we know whether or not the specialized services at G.F. Strong are the best option for her, or if she can receive the high quality care she needs closer to home."

"G.F. Strong is a provincial leader in many areas such as spinal cord treatment, ALS and assistive technology. However, it does not mean every individual with an acquired brain injury or other situation requiring rehabilitation must go there to receive the care they need. Other health authorities provide services for such patients and there are benefits to the patient to receive such services within or near to their home community," said Tiffany Akins, a spokesperson for VCH..

Michel White says all brain injured British Columbians should have access to top-level, one stop rehabilitation service.

Since CBC started investigating, Fraser Health has reached out to White to set up a Coquitlam assessment for late January. 

Fraser Health says White can be served closer to home through its ABI program, which is comparable to the program at G.F. Strong and able to offer her all the support she would get there and refer her to any program or specialist they do not have in house.

CBC interviewed a number of neurologists for background who confirmed that there is no other program functioning at the level of G.F. Strong's integrated rehabilitation services due to funding and staffing issues.

"G.F. Strong has never been a broader province-wide centre of care, and there has been no change in that respect," said the Ministry of Health in a written statement.

"Fraser Health has an excellent acquired brain injury program, and many of the services previously offered only at GF Strong are now available within that region."

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With Files from Eric Rankin


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