Transgender surgery's long waitlists forces 19-year-old to crowdfund for private care

Faced with a three-year wait for his gender affirming surgery, a 19-year-old Calgarian has taken to crowdfunding to pay for the procedure at a private Ontario clinic.

Ben Laurin bails on Alberta's provincially-funded surgical wait list and turns to a private clinic

Ben Laurin, 19, says the wait times for publicly funded gender affirming surgery in Alberta are simply too long. 2:42

When Madison Laurin made the decision to start living as Ben Laurin, he chopped off his ponytail, started therapy, eventually had testosterone injections and began to put years of feeling empty behind him.

But the 19-year-old's relief was replaced with frustration as he learned he would wait up to three years to get a double mastectomy — the surgery that would take him one step closer to looking like the person he felt like on the inside.

"When you come to this 'aha' moment, you're so excited and you can't wait to start getting the process going, And then you hear about this and it's just a really defeating feeling," said Laurin, who binds his breasts every morning before he gets dressed.

"You kind of just lose all hope."

100s caught up in surgical backlog

Laurin is one of up to 400 people in southern Alberta who are currently waiting for some kind of gender affirming surgery. GAS as it's known, includes everything from the removal of breasts and vocal chord surgery to vaginoplasty or phalloplasty, or "bottom surgery."

"There's probably not the resources and infrastructure in place to adequately meet the demand and need for this," said Dr. Joe Raiche, a psychiatrist who works with Calgary's transgender population at Foothills Medical Centre and Alberta Children's Hospital.

Dr. Joe Raiche is one of just three psychiatrists in Alberta who provide the mental health assessments required for gender affirmation surgery. (Supplied)

Raiche is the only physician in Calgary — and one of just three in Alberta — providing the mental health assessments required for gender affirming surgery.

As more and more individuals feel comfortable coming out, we need to have the resources to match that.- Dr. Joe Raiche , Calgary psychiatrist

According to Raiche, patients wait between one and three years for the provincially-funded operations. Top surgery — or a mastectomy — has the longest wait time and is seen as the most important surgery for someone transitioning from female to male. 

While there is no cap on the number of top surgeries the province funds — like there is for bottom surgeries — there are only a few plastic surgeons who perform a handful of them every year.

"What it comes down to is just a sheer volume," said Raiche.

"As more and more individuals feel comfortable coming out, we need to have the resources to match that."

One of the solutions, Raiche argues, would see Alberta Health contracting private surgeons — both inside and outside of the province — to perform mastectomies on trans men, in an effort to reduce the backlogs.

Advocates speak out

"I think it's really unacceptable that a transgender individual is waiting so long to move forward with their lives," said Pam Krause, president of Calgary Sexual Health Centre that provides support for transgender Calgarians.

Pam Krause, president of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, calls the waits for gender affirming surgery in Alberta "unacceptable." (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

According to Krause, the centre hears regularly from people frustrated by the backlog.

"It causes enormous stress," said Kraus.

She argues the longer people have to wait to transition, the more likely they are to struggle with mental health issues.

'Benny' fundraises to 'remove his jets'

Laurin isn't willing to wait any longer. He's working two jobs and he set up a GoFundMe campaign called Help Benny Remove His Jets to raise money to have his surgery done at a private clinic in Toronto.

"Honestly I think the first time my chest is revealed to me, I think I might cry," said Laurin, who has his first consultation in Ontario at the end of April. 

"I can look in the mirror and be happy and feel like, 'Yes, this is who I feel I'm supposed to be and meant to be.'"

Ben Laurin it taking matters into his own hands and crowdfunding for his gender affirming surgery. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

About the Author

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon, and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca