British Columbia

Gerd Trubenbach says flying to Korea for cancer surgery was his only hope

Gerd Trubenbach, 71, believes he would be dead if his Korean wife hadn't taken him to South Korea for life-saving surgery, after B.C. doctors discharged him from the Abbotsford Hospital with a huge malignant tumour growing in his neck last August.

Cancer patient, 71, says Canada's health-care system failed him, while Korea's saved him

B.C. cancer patient saved by surgery in Korea after delays — WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

CBC News Vancouver at 6

6 years ago
Gerd Trubenbach says flying to Korea for cancer surgery was his only hope after Canada's health-care system failed him 3:03

Gerd Trubenbach, 71, believes he would be dead if his Korean wife hadn't taken him to South Korea for life-saving surgery, after B.C. doctors discharged him from the Abbotsford Hospital with a huge malignant tumour growing in his neck last August.

"If we would have waited for treatment in Canada I would have surely died," says Trubenbach, who claims his doctor in B.C. sent him home to die last August with bandages on the open and infected mass on the back of his neck.

Naomi Kim's decision to fly him to Korea saved his life, Trubenbach says of his wife. (Gerd Trubenbach )

"He told me, 'Well, we cannot do anything else for you, we're just keeping your quality of life,' and when I came home and told my wife, she said, 'That's it, we're going to Korea," says Trubenbach.

He says his wife, Naomi Kim, was convinced he was going to die while waiting to see an oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency.

Kim says she was furious after her husband was told to wait eight weeks after his cancer diagnosis to see an oncologist.

Infected tumour growing aggressively 

Medical records show doctors at Abbotsford Hospital discharged Trubenbach on Aug. 1, 2014, with an eight-centimetre metastatic tumour growing "aggressively" on his neck.

His discharge papers show he was referred to the BC Cancer Agency for an urgent assessment, but when he showed up for that appointment, he says they sent him home, and told him to return three weeks later, which would have been eight weeks after a biopsy confirmed he had cancer.

The BC Cancer Agency says it aims to have all patients seen by an oncologist within four weeks of referral, but that appointments can be rescheduled from time to time.

"I was told the particular oncologist did not have any privileges at the Abbotsford Hospital, and I went back to my doctor, and he was very surprised," says Trubenbach.

Gerd Trubenbach is pictured in the ER at the Korean Hospital with his bandaged tumour, which had grown to 20 centimetres wide. (Naomi Kim)

He says his family physician suggested the tumour could not be removed.

"My impression was that they could not do anything for me or wouldn`t operate," says Trubenbach.

​He flew to Korea and underwent a 12-hour procedure on Sept 15 to remove the tumour, which had more than doubled in size, according to his surgeon at the Kyungpook National University Medical Centre in Daegu, Korea.

"I definitely recall Mr. Gerd Trubenbach … the malignant tumour in his neck was very huge.… The diameter of the tumour was approximately 20 cm," says  Dr. Jin Ho Sohn, in an email.

Prior to surgery, a CT scan shows the tumour, which had grown to 20 centimetres wide from eight centimetres in six weeks. (Kyungpook National University Medical Centre)

Sohn confirms Trubenbach would not have survived much longer without surgery and says the procedure would have been much less complicated if done sooner, in B.C.

Dr. Jin Ho Sohn of Kyungpook National University Medical Center in Daegu, Korea, performed the surgery to remove the tumour. (Dr. Jin Ho Sohn )

Sohn says test results confirmed Trubenbach had stage 4 cancer.

His family doctor declined CBC's request for an interview and the Fraser Health Authority offered no explanation about why his original oncology appointment was rescheduled.

"We can confirm that there were no issues with the specialist's privileges," says spokeswoman Tasleem Juma.

Cancer agency responds

The BC Cancer Agency says it will investigate any time a patient has concerns about care, but a spokesperson would not discuss Trubenbach's specific claims.

"From time to time appointments can be rebooked and patients are usually wait-listed for the next available appointment," says Lesley Pritchard, a spokesperson for the BC Cancer Agency. 

But Trubenbach left Canada before ever seeing an oncologist, saying B.C.'s health-care system is too slow.

When asked if he might have misunderstood the doctor who he says told him there was nothing they could do, Trubenbach says, "No I did not misunderstand him."

He insists if he had waited for his appointment it would have been too late.

"The cancer would have spread into the brain or everywhere else," says Trubenbach, clutching his wife's hand.

'Cancer waits too long' in Canada

"I'm really thankful that I married her," he says, crediting Kim's decision to take him to Korea with saving his life.

Gerd Trubenbach recovers in Korea, next to a mat on the floor where his wife slept for three months (Naomi Kim)

"I think it's very good I decided this. He is alive and we're lucky," says Kim.

Her Korean family members were able to obtain a visa that gave Trubenbach government health insurance. He only had to pay $8,000 of his $150,000 hospital bill. 

Trubenbach says he is grateful to the Korean surgeon who declared him cancer free after more than 100 days in the hospital, receiving radiation and chemotherapy.

He is speaking out about his case to highlight what he calls waits that are too long for cancer treatment in Canada.

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