British Columbia

Pandemic leaves chronically ill without critical access to washrooms

Mapping the nearest washrooms before leaving home is routine for Remo Testini. For 14 years, he’s been living with Crohn's disease — a chronic inflammatory bowel condition that can lead to severe abdominal pain and a sudden urgent need to use a restroom, among other issues.

Some patients want B.C.'s government to order businesses to keep their washrooms open

Remo Testini says he has to use GPS to find washroom locations on his route before he leaves home each day because he lives with Crohn's disease. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

Mapping the nearest washrooms before leaving home is routine for Remo Testini. But add a pandemic to the mix and finding a bathroom can feel next to impossible.

For 14 years, Testini's been living with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition that can lead to severe abdominal pain and a sudden urgent need to use a restroom, among other problems.

When at a job site as a labourer, Testini says, finding a gas station or coffee shop with an open washroom is a difficult endeavour at the best of times. But because of the pandemic, the few he felt were available to him to use have now shut their doors.

"I really have to beg to use a washroom," Testini said.

If he has a flare-up, which can happen suddenly for those living with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, he can have the urge to use a washroom. If Testini can't use one, the consequences can be degrading and embarrassing.

"[It] just releases. It's not like you can control it. You don't know when it's going to happen. It can happen at any time. You could be standing in a line up, and all of a sudden it's like, 'Oh I gotta go,'" he said.

He says going to the washroom away from home isn't something he wants to do, but oftentimes, it's his only option. With COVID-19 numbers spiking across the country, many businesses are cutting off access to them.

B.C.'s Ministry of Health says public restrooms are deemed essential services. But there's no order mandating that other rest stops, such as gas stations, keep the welcome mat out.

"We do encourage people to make it available to those in need in a safe way," Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Dec. 11.

'People living in our community with invisible disabilities' 

Testini is one of 33,000 British Columbians living with Crohn's or ulcerative colitis. One in 140 Canadians live with one of the chronic illnesses, according to Crohn's and Colitis Canada, a national charity.

Family physician Birinder Narang said because the chronic diseases are not physically evident, many patients feel abandoned.

Dr. Birinder Narang says businesses need to follow rigorous COVID-19 safety measures and cleaning procedures but shouldn't be closing public access to their bathrooms. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

He says businesses are fearful of COVID-19, but he reminds them, there's no public health order dictating their closure.

"COVID transmission is droplet-based and airborne. So, while it can live on surfaces, with regular cleaning, It hasn't been an identifiable source," he said.

Shell Canada and Tim Horton's are among the businesses that tell CBC News they're making an effort to keep washrooms open.

But, Testini says, the problem is many of those doors are still closed. He wants to see government mandate these businesses to keep their washrooms open.

"People use the washroom sometimes five to 20 times a day, depending on how bad their flare is," said Matthew Sebastiani, president of the Vancouver chapter of Crohn's and Colitis Canada.

The Go Here app from Crohn's and Colitis Canada allows users to log in and find a business that has kept its washrooms open to support those with chronic illnesses. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

He says access to washrooms needs to be backed by government bodies, but for now, there's an app those living with chronic illnesses can use to find a washroom. It's something Testini relies on daily.

The Go Here app has businesses, all shared on a map, that support Crohn's and Colitis Canada and keep their washrooms open.

But if they don't, Testini says, he's often stuck sharing personal details about himself to a store clerk in hopes they'll empathize.

"Nobody wants to beg. Leave the washrooms open."

About the Author

Zahra Premji

Host/Reporter

Zahra Premji is a host/reporter for CBC News Vancouver. She has worked as a host for CBC Alberta News in Edmonton, and a reporter in B.C. and Manitoba on various stories from racism to health and crime to asylum seekers and immigration. You can reach her at zahra.premji@cbc.ca

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