With surgery on hold, Manitoba woman fighting pain looks to the U.S. for care

A Winnipeg woman battling constant pain while waiting for back surgery is considering going to the United States for care. Doctors say she is one of thousands of Manitobans in need of surgery as operations are postponed and staff are redeployed to deal with COVID-19 cases.

Patients dying, others becoming paralyzed while waiting for surgery: doctors

Retired gym teacher Barbie Shukster isn't sure when she will receive the back surgery she's been waiting for. (CBC)

Barbie Shukster keeps a bottle of Tylenol 3s nearby to help get her through the day.

The retired gym teacher, who craves physical exercise, is in so much pain that she says she has to take six to eight of the pills with codeine a day. Even a short walk two houses down her street is taxing.

"I feel like there's a knife in my body, in different places at all times," said Shukster, 67.

She is one of thousands of Manitobans waiting for surgery who've been left in the lurch due to a health-care system struggling to keep up with an aggressive third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The province has cancelled most non-urgent surgeries and redeployed operating staff to ICUs, which are full. At least 18 critically ill patients have been airlifted to Ontario, and the military is preparing to possibly fly even more.

Shukster used to love kayaking, but now she says she's barely able to walk down a block of her street. She uses a cane sometimes to assist her due to debilitating back pain. (Submitted by Barbie Shukster)

Shukster is waiting for spinal stenosis surgery to put an end to her chronic back pain. Before the pandemic started, she said she was told it would be one to two years before she'd be operated on. Now, she fears it will be several more years, and is considering getting the surgery in the United States, at a steep starting price of $60,000.

"People take out mortgages to buy houses and people take out car loans. Do I need to take out a hospital loan so that I can have surgery in another country? Because that's what it's come to."

Patients losing control of bowels

Doctors say patients who are waiting at home with serious health issues, including cancer, aren't able to get into an OR.

"There are people now who are waiting to have their spines operated on that are losing control of their bowels and bladder and becoming paralyzed. And in fact, the province has now started transferring these patients to U.S. institutions for surgery," said Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU doctor and cardiac anesthesiologist.

Jacobsohn said six patients have died while waiting for cardiac surgery, and urged the provincial government to shut down non-essential businesses and issue a stay-at-home order. His plea is something the premier and the province's top doctor have repeatedly resisted, while incorrectly stating Manitoba has had some of the toughest restrictions in Canada.

At a press conference on May 7, chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa warned the impact on surgical capacity was likely to be significant, adding that life-threatening surgeries would be prioritized and some patients may need to be sent outside of Winnipeg.

Jacobsohn, who estimated about 20,000 patients are waiting for deferred surgery, said despite "gargantuan efforts," only the most dire surgeries are happening right now.

Patients endure emotional 'roller-coaster' 

"It is clear that cancers are progressing and are not being operated on. People who have aneurysms, the aneurysms are bursting at home and people are dying," said Jacobsohn.

He said he was aware of one patient who was ready to be taken into the OR last week for the third time and then had his surgery abruptly cancelled 30 minutes before the operation was to start.

"It's been an emotional and mental and physical roller-coaster for our patients," said Dr. Christine Peschken, a rheumatologist.

Thousands of surgeries have been postponed in Manitoba as surgical staff are redeployed to ICUs to care for critically ill COVID patients. Above, Winnipeg lab workers at BioScision Diagnostics and Pure Lifestyle process PCR tests. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

"There's a limit for how long we can do that, and we thought it would be better by now. Instead, we've got the entire health-care system that's in danger of collapse. Our patients are starting to show up with rising complications because of lack of care. And now our clinics are barely functioning because of staff redeployments."

The doctors repeated a plea for the province to implement a stay-at-home order and a complete closure of non-essential businesses, including malls, which are allowed to be open with 10 per cent capacity.

"In Ontario, you can't go to indoor shopping malls right now, yet we're asking [that province] to take our patients. That's absurd," said Dan Roberts, a critical care physician at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.

Shukster, who misses getting in a kayak and going for a bike ride, said she isn't sure how much longer she can wait in pain.

"I promoted physical activity all my life and it's come to the point where I can't be physically active. I want to be physically active and I can't be."

WATCH | Manitoba patients wait for postponed surgeries as hospital staff are redeployed:

Thousands of Manitoba patients are waiting in limbo for postponed surgeries as hospital staff are redeployed to ICUs filled with COVID patients

2 years ago
Duration 1:39
The province says urgent surgeries are still prioritized but doctors say the definition of urgent is life or death right now leaving patients in agony.


​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email:

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