Nfld. & Labrador

This double-lung transplant survivor wants to see more financial support for N.L. recipients

Wendy Woolridge says the province needs to do more for patients who have no choice but to travel out of the province for lung transplants.

Wendy Woolridge sold her home to cover costs of moving to Toronto for procedure

Wendy Woolridge spent over a year in Toronto waiting for a double lung transplant and says the costs, even with government support, were enormous. (Submitted by Wendy Woolridge)

A double-lung transplant survivor from Grand Falls-Windsor says the province needs to step up financial support for patients who are given no choice but to relocate to Toronto for the procedure.

Wendy Woolridge, who received her transplant in 2016, says the cost of moving almost ruined her financially.

While the province gives patients a $3,000 monthly allowance to pay for accommodations while they're in Toronto, she said it still wasn't enough to survive on.

"It doesn't even touch the spectrum. Our accommodations alone were more than $2,750 a month in our apartment where we stayed," she said.

"We were there over one year. We went up in March 2016 and we returned home in July of 2017. So it was very expensive."

The lung transplant team at Toronto General Hospital performs the surgery on about two dozen Atlantic Canadians a year. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Patients must move to Toronto indefinitely after being approved for a transplant because they have to be ready at a moment's notice if a lung becomes available.

Fundraising a necessity

Woolridge and her husband ended up selling their house and car to ensure they'd be able to afford the move.

"We would never have been able to keep up with that. Never," said Woolridge. "It wasn't an option. We had to sell the house and the car."

Woolridge survived her double lung transplant, but not without a significant financial setback. (Submitted by Wendy Woolridge)

Fundraising is also necessary for all but the most affluent individuals, said Woolridge, and without the support of a large community of friends back home in Newfoundland, she said her family would have had difficulty making ends meet.

"It's heartbreaking because [a] person who is struggling for their life as I was, and other people are, finances should be the least of things you should have to worry about when your life is on the line."

Her family and friends back in Newfoundland and Labrador raised around $75,000 to cover the costs of her move and rehabilitation.

"We used every cent of that, every single cent of that, when we were there," she said. 

Woolridge suffers from pulmonary hypertension, a rare condition that increases swelling in the lungs, and contributes to shortness of breath, chest pain, and chronic fatigue.

After years of trying medicine that wasn't working, doctors told her the double lung transplant was her last hope. 

Thanks to the procedure, she said she's been given a new lease on life.

"I firmly believe that the government could contribute more given that the services are not provided here," said Woolridge. "Because that financial burden is the last thing you need when you are sick."

Lung transplants require more support

In an email, Newfoundland and Labrador Lung Association president Greg Noel echoed Woolridge's call for more help.

"We would love to see the province kick in more support for lung transplant patients as their financial needs are significantly different than most other transplant patients who only have to leave once an organ is available and may not have the long-term stay that many lung transplant patients require," said Noel.

John Haggie, Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister, says a $3,000 monthly allowance is generous compared with what's offered in other Atlantic provinces. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The amount of money provided to transplant patients in Newfoundland and Labrador is higher than in other Atlantic provinces, but Noel said it's still not enough.

"It's very sad when we hear that people have to sell their homes just to be able to breathe," he said.

In Prince Edward Island, patients get a $1,000 monthly allowance, while in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick they get $1,500.

Funding is competitive, says health minister

Health Minister John Haggie says $3,000 is all the province can contribute given its current financial state.

"We fund out-of-province treatment at a rate that is better than the rest of Atlantic Canada and competitive with any other jurisdiction across the country," he said recently in an interview with CBC News.

"Obviously if we had more we'd be able to do more, but I think bearing in mind our fiscal situation we actually have a very generous program by itself."

Over the last three years, Haggie said 18 people have travelled to Toronto for lung transplants, and he said it simply isn't feasible to cover all expenses for these patients.

"Unfortunately, I have to fund healthcare for 523,000 people," he said.

"Were our circumstances a little better then maybe we could put some more funds toward that ... it would be nice if we could, but we have to live within our means."

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