Waiting time pushes Fredericton woman to Colombia for surgery

A Fredericton woman says the province could learn a few lessons in health care from Colombia.

Sharon Burke thinks her medical tourist trip for knee surgery was well worth the cost

A Fredericton woman says the province could learn a few lessons in health care from Colombia.

Sharon Burke is in the South American country, recovering from knee surgery. She decided to get the operation in Medellin after learning it could take up to three years to get surgery in New Brunswick.

Sharon Burke is recuperating from knee surgery in Colombia. (Subitted by Sharon Burke)
Burke says her problems started about four years ago after a slight injury to her knee. Doctors treated her injury with cortisone shots and synthetic joint fluid and the pain went away.

But two years ago the pain returned and Burke headed back to her family doctor. He told her that it was time to examine the knee with an MRI.

"I went to my physician in Fredericton and he basically told me, 'Now's the time to get an MRI we need to see what's going on.'" she recalls.

"But then unfortunately there's going to be a wait of four to six months for your MRI and once we have that in hand we can make an appointment to see an orthopedic surgeon, which currently in his estimation was going to take anywhere from six to eight months because it wasn't considered a really drastic situation."

Then the news got even worse.

Burke was told she would be facing a wait of  two to three years after that appointment to get orthopaedic surgery.

She decided it was time to search for alternatives.

Burke had done some volunteer work in Colombia in 2013 and had kept in touch with some of the people there. One of them was a doctor. 

"And he said, 'You're crazy to wait. I don't know why you didn't have an MRI when you were down here in April. And you know we could have done the surgery like right away,'" Burke recalled.

"And at that moment, I just had this epiphany and I thought `Yes! We could have done that."

Burke also has a friend who works with an airline and within days she was booked on a flight south and headed to Medellin.

She says the contrast in medical care was startling.

"I was here for six days and I had appointments and X-rays, and MRIs, and three consults with an orthopedic surgeon," Burke said. "He's one of the best here, he's one of the surgeons for Colombia's professional soccer teams."

Since her arrival Burke has undergone arthroscopic surgery to remove a small cyst and bone fragments from her knee and another procedure with her tibia, to realign her knee-cap.

"They opened underneath my knee, about 12 centimetres, and they had to move the main nerves of my leg over about two to three inches," she said.

"The surgeon cut through my tibia about 80 per cent. My knee was so out of alignment, he needed to pull the tibia apart and then stuck in a metal plate and six screws and injected synthetic bone into my tibia."

Burke says it took eight weeks for the synthetic bone to harden enough for her to put any weight on her leg.

She's now recovering at a rehabilitation centre and she's never felt better.

"I have a 12-centimetre scar on my leg, I have six screws and a metal plate and I have a tibia that's been cut 80 per cent across, but the pain is gone," said Burke.

She says her Colombian surgeon told her she'd come for treatment just in time.

"My knee was so misaligned apparently that if I had not of come when I did, the surgery would not have been possible six months from now."

She is paying for the procedures privately and has kept receipts that she hopes to file for tax credit on her income tax.

 I believe that coming here was probably the best thing that I could have done.- Sharon Burke

"So people say to me you know, do you regret going to Colombia?" said Burke.

"No, I believe that coming here was probably the best thing that I could have done."

Burke said the cost of her four-hour operation was $2,500 US and her six-day stay in hospital in a private room cost $150 US per day.

Her apartment in the rehabilitation centre that is staffed by nurses and physiotherapists is costing $2,500 US for the month.

"Medicare is not paying for this," she said, laughing.

"In fact I didn't even ask because I know better.

"It's not extremely expensive to come here and have it done. It's actually, compared to anywhere else, it's very reasonable."

And Burke says she likes the way the Colombians fund their medical system. She says according to her doctors, there are two systems. One is socialized similar to New Brunswick's medicare system, but people are allowed to access private care.

All tax revenues from the sales of alcohol and cigarettes are directed toward health care, she said. She says it's the kind of system that she thinks New Brunswickers would support.

"I would be lying if said I wasn't disappointed or sad that I had to look elsewhere.

"[But] I'm the kind of person and anybody who knows me will know that once I decide to do something and make that decision, I don't look back," she said. "I knew that I couldn't live with the pain that I had. There were days when I could barely walk and I knew that I couldn't live with that for two or three years."

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