Man wants Alberta to fund U.S. brain surgery

A Fort McMurray man wants the province to pay for brain surgery at an American clinic that he says saved his life.

A Fort McMurray man wants the province to pay for brain surgery at an American clinic that he says saved his life.

Shane Wambolt had a cyst removed from his pineal gland last November. It was a procedure his doctor said was necessary but couldn't be done in Canada.

The committee that decides whether Alberta will cover out-of-country services deemed the surgery elective, as did an appeal panel.

"Elective surgery to me would be plastic surgery or something cosmetic that's not necessary for you to live," Wambolt said. "I mean everybody needs a brain to live."

Shane Wambolt holds his son outside his home in Fort McMurray Monday. (CBC)
The condition was causing Wambolt to experience migraines, tremors and blackouts. He lost control of his muscles and was having trouble remembering things.

Wambolt consulted with specialists in Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia and was told no one could help. His Canadian options exhausted, he had surgery costing $250,000 at the Skull Base Institute in Los Angeles on Nov. 30.

Minister asks for review

In a letter, the Out of Country Services Committee said Wambolt should have had the procedure approved before travelling to have it done. They also felt that Wambolt didn't need the procedure. His appeal was rejected earlier this month

Wambolt's parents mortgaged their house in Nova Scotia and are facing bankruptcy. His coworkers at Suncor are donating money from every pay cheque to help out.

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky has asked for a review of Wambolt's case. (CBC)
Wambolt is frustrated because he believes the province funded the procedure for another Alberta patient with the same medical condition.

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky said he cannot intervene directly in Wambolt's case but has asked for the matter to be reviewed.

"To see if there is any new or additional information or perhaps information that the family or the family's physician for whatever reason did not submit initially or are there extenuating circumtances," he said. "That's what the process is all about right now."

When asked about the committee's decision to fund a similar procedure for another patient, Zwozdesky said it is impossible for two cases to be completely identical.

Families face huge medical bills

Wambolt isn't the only Alberta patient who has had this procedure.

Jillian Greenwood had a cyst on her pineal gland removed seven weeks ago. (CBC)
Wainwright resident Jillian Greenwood had surgery seven weeks ago at the same Los Angeles clinic to remove a cyst on her pineal gland.

Greenwood suffered from headaches and nausea for years but she said doctors didn't believe her.

"I was basically being told that I was crazy: 'This is all in your head. You just need some counselling and the symptoms will go away,'" she said.

After four different neurosurgeons in Edmonton told her they would not operate, Greenwood went to the Skull Base Institute to have the cyst removed. The surgery worked.

"The symptoms disappeared as soon as I woke up," she said.

While the procedure was a success, her family was left with a $208,000 hospital bill.

Greenwood's mother, Kim Olson, took out a bank loan to cover the cost.

"A funeral is a whole lot cheaper than what we did," she said. "But a lifetime without my girl? Not worth it."

CBC News also found another woman in Calgary who faces a six-figure  medical bill after having the procedure a year ago. She is waiting to learn whether the province will cover the cost of the surgery.


With files from the CBC's Scott Fralick