British Columbia

'You want to scream': Cost of organ transplant a worry for some B.C. patients

When Peggy Mahoney discovered she had a rare liver condition and required a transplant, it came as a shock. But Mahoney was shocked again to learn how much money she would need to follow through on her treatment.

Patients must spend several months in Vancouver after procedure for follow-up care

Peggy Mahoney had a successful liver transplant in Vancouver in 2012. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

When Peggy Mahoney discovered she had a rare liver condition and required a transplant, it came as a shock.

"No one saw it coming because I was a granola-eating, exercising, healthy person," said Mahoney, of Victoria.

Thankfully, her son was a match for the life-saving transplant.

But Mahoney said she was shocked again to learn how much money she would need to set aside to follow through on her treatment.

All transplants in B.C. are done in Vancouver, where the medical expertise required to assemble transplant teams is available.

The cost of the medical care and the travel to Vancouver is covered by the province.

Follow-up care

But transplant patients then have to spend several months living near the hospital after their procedure for follow-up care. They also need to have a caregiver with them to provide support.

Those extra costs fall to the patient and can be as much as $20,000, Mahoney said.

"At that point, almost three years on disability, a lot of my liquid assets were gone," she said.

"You want to scream at that point: 'sick person here'. I was not very healthy, to try and come up with that kind of money."

Mahoney managed to make her finances work, and had a successful liver transplant in 2012. As a counsellor, she now helps other critically ill patients navigate the medical system.

And she worries the rising cost of living in Vancouver has exacerbated the financial burden for transplant patients.

"A lot of these systems were developed in the 1980s where that wasn't the same kind of financial hardship as it is today."

Treatment and monitoring

Organ transplants are a highly complex procedure and patients must stay near the medical facility to be closely monitored by their transplant team for roughly three months, said Dr. David Landsberg, Transplant B.C.'s provincial medical director for transplant services.

While the need to stay in Vancouver can be a financial challenge, the team works with patients to ensure they have a plan, he said.

Charitable organizations such as Kidney Foundation, Happy Liver Society, Heart Home Society, David Foster Foundation and Ronald McDonald House also help provide affordable places for patients to stay during their treatment.

"We work very carefully with patients to help them find the right support, the right accommodations," Landsberg said.

While he has heard of patients who decide against being added to the organ transplant list due to the cost and challenges of treatment, Landsberg said no one is turned away over financial need.

"I don't know of anybody that would ever have been denied a transplant, just on the basis of they didn't have the funds."

But Mahoney hopes more can be done to ensure no one ever has to choose whether they can afford to save their own life.

In B.C., a record 502 organ transplants were conducted in 2018. Over 1.35 million British Columbians have registered their wishes to be an organ donor.


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