Health·Second Opinion

Portrait of a Canadian without a drug plan

Shelley Wigham D'Angelo's dramatic story of her struggle to afford the life-saving medications her doctors prescribed.

'I was embarrassed. I didn't want to tell anybody that I couldn't afford them.'

After food and rent, Shelley Wigham D'Angelo said there wasn't enough left to pay for heart medication. Then last summer she had a heart attack. (Chris langanzarde/CBC)

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

We met Shelley Wigham D'Angelo while researching a story about the federal government's national pharmacare announcement. She was one of several Canadians we spoke to who struggle to afford the life-saving medications their doctors prescribed.

Wigham D'Angelo's dramatic story stood out. It's a chilling cautionary tale.

Wigham D'Angelo is a 64-year-old widow in Toronto. She works seven days a week at two restaurant jobs but still couldn't afford the pills her doctor told her she needed. 

She has no medical insurance through her work, but she makes too much money to qualify for government drug coverage. So she's caught in the middle. When it comes to paying for her medications, she is on her own.

"I was embarrassed. I didn't want to tell anybody that I couldn't afford them," she recalled last week. But she needed the pills after suffering from heart problems. Her doctor prescribed two drugs that, added up, cost about $125 per month.

"Sometimes I did have to go to the pharmacy and ask them to give it to me half and half just depending on what month it was."

And sometimes she made the difficult decision not to fill her prescriptions altogether.

'I just didn't take them'

"I will tell you the truth. The first time that I had problems with my heart I just didn't take them. But I ended up back in the hospital."

Shelley Wigham D'Angelo says she's now looking at as much $400 a month for medications. (Melanie Glanz/CBC)

This time she had a full blown heart attack — the very thing the drugs were supposed to prevent. And now she needed even more drugs.

"She gave me a list of no less than five medications that I needed to take and I looked at her and said, 'Well how much will this cost?' She said, 'I don't know. You will have to ask your pharmacist.'"

One of the drugs costs more $200 a month, and adding them all up Wigham D'Angelo is now facing prescription costs that she doesn't know how she will afford.

"So all of a sudden I am looking at as much $400 a month for medications. That is a lot of money to me."

She says it's ironic that the government would have saved money if they'd simply covered her drugs in the first place.

"If you think about how much money it costs for me to be in the hospital for three or four days recently, it is a lot more money than if I had taken my drugs."

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With files from CBC's Melanie Glanz