Albertans wait longest for cornea transplants

Hundreds of Albertans are in danger of losing their sight due to a lack of corneas for transplant, a situation that hasn't changed in two years.

Delays continue to average 2 years

Hundreds of Albertans going blind who don't need to, Scott Fralick reports 3:06

Hundreds of Albertans are in danger of losing their sight due to a lack of corneas for transplant, a situation that hasn't changed in more than two years.

Happy ending

In 2012, CBC News interviewed Rod Bennett, who was already blind in his left eye and living in fear he would lose sight in the other before he could receive a cornea transplant.

Bennett received his cornea transplant last fall after a wait of more than two years, but said his painful wait for a transplant for his right eye was made worse as his sight failed. "There's no way it is what it was two years ago — it's deteriorated," Bennett told CBC News.

However, his physician says publicity about the cornea shortage first reported by CBC News might be the reason more corneas became available

Alberta has the longest wait times for cornea transplants in the country, with people waiting up to two years on average. It's only five months in British Columbia, while Manitobans wait up to a year and Ontario residents face an 18-month delay.

One reason for the long wait: Alberta doesn't import corneas from the United States. Quebec does, and after that province made the decision, wait times quickly dropped to a year or less.

"We purchased a number of corneas from American eye banks that had surpluses of those tissues," Dr. Marc Germain told CBC News. 

Raymond Stewart says the condition has left him housebound. He won't go out in the winter anymore.

"The problem is when I'm walking I don't know where my next step is and whether I'm going to tumble or not," the 90-year-old Manitoban says.

Stewart said he wished bureaucrats who hold back services could know what he goes through: "You take my place for a while and see how you like it."

Alberta Health Services has said it doesn't have the money to pay for corneas from the U.S., which has reduced waiting times in much of the rest of Canada.

"In other parts of the world this is really an elective surgey that's taken care of in a matter of a few weeks or a couple of months," one physician told CBC News.

Health Minister Fred Horne said Monday he empathizes with people who have to wait for a cornea transplant.

While he wouldn't make any promises, he hinted the government might re-examine the long wait time.

"Two years is too long to wait," Horne said. "It's important to take the time to look at all the factors, then take action as quickly as we can to reduce the waiting time."

With files from Scott Fralick