Watson Lake residents wary of local medical care

Several residents in the remote Yukon community of Watson Lake would rather drive 445 kilometres to Whitehorse than visit their local hospital.

Parents drive their children 445km to Whitehorse to see the doctor

CBC's Nancy Thomson reports 2:49

Watson Lake is a five-hour drive from Whitehorse but some residents in the community in need of medical care would rather drive the 445 kilometres down the highway instead of going to a doctor in their own community.

Watson Lake has a brand new six-bed hospital, but that hospital doesn't have a good reputation with several people, who are deeply mistrustful of the standard of care they receive.

The town's only private clinic is owned by Dr. Said Secerbegovic. He's been in the community for decades.

Some people are staunch supporters of Secerbegovic; others mistrust the care they receive from any doctor in Watson Lake.

Several people in the Watson Lake area aren't willing to place their children's health in the hands of doctors in the community. 

Trish Ball and her partner even have a special contingency fund so that whenever they need to, they can take their kids to Whitehorse.

Last summer, Ball noticed her two-year-old son Zachariah's eye was oddly clouded.  

After consulting the internet. she suspected either cataracts or retinoblastoma — cancer of the eye.

Trish Ball's son lost an eye to cancer. She took it upon herself to call a specialist because she didn't want to rely on the local clinic for prompt action. "I didn't feel secure, you just don't want to waste time," she said.

Ball took Zachariah to a doctor in  Watson Lake. She says the doctor suspected something serious but Ball didn't want to rely on the clinic for prompt action.

So she took matters into her own hands, asking the clinic for the name and number of the specialist in Vancouver.

The receptionist relented and Ball called the ophthalmologist directly. 

The specialist called her back, urging her to get Zachariah to Vancouver immediately.

He was in surgery three days later where his eye was removed and the spread of cancer halted.

"When it came to my baby, it wasn't an option," says Ball. "Because I didn't feel secure. You just don't want to waste time. I'm not confident with our health care in Watson Lake."

Others echo that sentiment. Rayna Schmidt moved to Watson Lake five years ago from B.C.

"The doctors here they don't really check into you like they do in B.C.," she says. "In  B.C they check you over, look over your file and stuff, ask what's going on and investigate. Here they just kind of just bring up your chart, give you whatever they gave you last time, and then you're done. That's it."

I prefer not to go to the doctors here. I'll suffer with the pains if I have to.- Rayna Schmidt

Schmidt says she isn't satisfied with the standard of medical care in Watson Lake.

She had taken her daughter to outpatient service at the community's hospital and requested a referral. The doctor there refused so she drove her daughter to the emergency ward in Whitehorse, where, she says, she was satisfied with the medical care. 

Now she takes her children to Whitehorse when they need medical care. She won't visit the local doctors herself.

"I prefer not to go to the doctors here. I'll suffer with the pains if I have to."

Man with HIV frustrated with 'revolving door' of doctors

One Watson Lake man in his early 30s was diagnosed with HIV about four years ago.

He says coping with a chronic and painful condition is made more difficult by having to explain his medical history continually to new doctors. 

This Watson Lake man is HIV-positive. He says coping with a chronic and painful medical condition is made more difficult by having to explain his file to different doctors. "I just give up on going to the doctors," he says.

"Other days it'll be some other young doctor, and then another couple weeks or a week or two weeks later, it'll be a different doctor," he says.

"So basically it's just doctor after doctor, just taking turns working at the clinic. It's hard for me to explain it. They read the file and say 'well, what can we do for you? I'm just like, well, there's a file, everything's there in front of you guys. How hard is it to figure it out? So I just give up on going to the doctors, I'm just tired of it. Basically, I just suffer it out."

The man says he's considering moving to Whitehorse, just so he can see the same doctor all the time, but he doesn't want to leave his community where he was raised and all his family and friends live.

Another resident, Richard Welsh, has a bedridden daughter who is severely disabled with cerebral palsy.

Welsh also lacks faith in the medical care. 

Richard Welsh's daughter is severely disabled. He is concerned about the standard of care at the Watson Lake hospital. "I'm petrified to go to the hospital," he says. (cbc)

"The doctors really don't know her record," he says. "She was feeding through a g-tube, which is right into her stomach, and it was too big for her. The wrong size was put in...,.so she had discomfort.

"I'm petrified to go to the hospital. There's times I hesitate to phone to take her there. It depends which doctors are on. If a certain doctor is not on, we will refuse, unless it's a medical emergency."

Like Schmidt, Welsh says he's reluctant to see the doctors for his own medical conditions. 

"I don't trust the doctors, you know. There's no trust, there's no relationship. There's a rotating door within the clinic, who you get to see," he says.

I don't trust the doctors. There's no trust. There's no relationship.- Richard Welsh

"There's no follow up afterwards. I've been here 13 years and I've seen 13 different doctors. Every time you see a new doctor, you've got to start from scratch and tell them what's going on, how long you had it,, so on and so forth, Revolving door again."

Laurie Allen, who was raised in Watson Lake, wants to see change.

"I'm very concerned about the lack of doctors," Allen says. "We need more doctors. Our doctors that are here are so overworked, and sure we're a small community but we need help.

"I think that patients don't get to know their physician and the physicians don't get to know their patients. And I think that to have good medical care, you need to have a good relationship with your physician and vice-versa."

Woman took her sick aunt from Watson Lake hospital to Whitehorse

Josephine Caesar also has problems with the standard of care at the community's hospital.

Three years ago, her aunt was a patient there. She suffered from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver.

The level of mistrust towards the medical care is so pronounced that several people in Watson Lake refuse to see doctors there. They drive to Whitehorse instead.

"Her room was filthy," Caesar says. "The garbage, a big garbage bin was overflowing. Her bathroom was dirty. She didn't even have an IV in. I had to withdraw her, discharge her and bring her to Whitehorse that same day.

"And when she got to Whitehorse, she got really good care...100 per cent. They were just actively helping her. They were phoning Vancouver, they did everything right, but it was too late. She was too sick."

Caesar's aunt died not long after being admitted to Whitehorse General.

Residents call for change from Yukon Hospital Corporation 

Some people head south to seek medical care, driving the six hours down the Alaska Highway to doctors in Fort Nelson, in northern B.C.

Ball says people have been wary of the medical care in the community for some time. 

"The issues here I think have been issues for years. This has been going on for a while. And eventually people are just tired of fighting."

The Yukon Hospital Corporation is ultimately responsible for the operation and the management of the Watson Lake hospital.

Resident Sherry Botterill says it's up to the corporation to sort things out and restore trust.

"(Dr.) Said Secerbegovic has done well to keep a clinic going here but it does affect our health with all these different doctors," Botterill says.

"I also believe the Yukon Hospital Corporation should get its poop in a group and decide what they're going to do with (Dr.) Said and his clinic, and how they're going to staff this hospital, as it affects us all greatly with the inconsistencies of seeing several different doctors and referrals not being made."

Residents in the community have questions for the hospital corporation and the Yukon government. They say they don't receive the standard of health care that a publicly funded system has pledged to deliver.

Dr. Said Secerbegovic and the Yukon Hospital Corporation have declined an interview with the CBC.


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