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Painful dental emergency leaves Whitehorse resident scrambling to find $13k

Shalom Dawson ahead of having 11 teeth removed and replaced with dentures, last Wednesday in Vancouver. (Submitted by Shalom Dawson - image credit)
Shalom Dawson ahead of having 11 teeth removed and replaced with dentures, last Wednesday in Vancouver. (Submitted by Shalom Dawson - image credit)

A Whitehorse resident was confronted with the choice of finding $13,000 for an emergency dental procedure in Vancouver, or leaving an abscess untreated which she feared would "lead to death."

Shalom Dawson said it was a painful discovery that the territory lacks a full-time oral surgeon, and won't pay for surgeries it doesn't consider "medical."

Dawson said the abscess was likely growing for about five years, potentially the result of a congenital condition, before it "all exploded" and became painfully infected at the start of this year.

"I couldn't eat or talk anymore," she said.

Dawson rushed to hospital, where she was referred to an emergency dentist, and then her family dentist.

She learnt she could get rid of the abscess by root canal or having three teeth removed — but that would likely cause more complications down the track.

The best course of action, her dentist told her, was to see an oral surgeon immediately for removal of at least seven teeth.

Letters from local dentists, highlighting the urgent need for Shalom Dawson to be seen by an oral surgeon.
Letters from local dentists, highlighting the urgent need for Shalom Dawson to be seen by an oral surgeon.

Letters from local dentists, saying there was an urgent need for Dawson to be seen by an oral surgeon. (Katie Todd/CBC)

But the problem was when and where.

Dawson could only get a tentative appointment in late February with a surgeon who visits the territory every few weeks.

"It was just a 'let's hope someone cancels' kind of basis, but because of the size and infection I have to see someone sooner than that," Dawson said.

Eventually Dawson and her partner opted to go to Vancouver, where she ultimately had the abscess removed, and 11 teeth removed and replaced with dentures on Feb. 7.

"If I didn't get the abscess removed, I'm sure it would lead to death," she said.

"I [wasn't] responding to antibiotics and it's really big. Having an infection in your mouth is quite serious."

Less than a fifth of the cost funded

The total bill for the trip was $15,423.

$6,400 of that was for flights, accommodation, food, babysitting and kennels for Dawson's dogs.

The surgery and dentures make up the other $9,023.

Dawson said most of the money has come from her credit card, her friends and family, and a GoFundMe page.

The Yukon Government is chipping in less than a fifth of the cost.

Dawson said they're processing about $420 in "daily allowances" for her time in Vancouver, and potentially another $420 for her husband.

For the surgery, the Yukon Government is paying $2,145.

Scans taken ahead of Shalom Dawson's surgery, illustrating the abscess. "Having an infection in your mouth is quite serious," she says.
Scans taken ahead of Shalom Dawson's surgery, illustrating the abscess. "Having an infection in your mouth is quite serious," she says.

Scans taken ahead of Dawson's surgery, illustrating the abscess. (Submitted by Shalom Dawson )

"But that's just for the extractions of the immediate teeth and the abscess and the local anesthetic. That doesn't include the dentures or the rest of the teeth that are being pulled," Dawson said.

Dawson had also hoped to reimburse her friend who scrambled to buy the last available flights on her behalf.

Only business class was available, so the seats cost $4,500.

Because her friend paid with flight credits, Dawson said the Yukon Government told her it was unable to reimburse them.

"It should not be the community's responsibility to pay for my medical bills," Dawson said.

"We appreciate them and are so truly grateful, but begging family and friends for help is not a route we should have been forced to take."

Yukon NDP leader Kate White speaking to reporters (file photo). She says the Yukon has the most progressive dental program in the entire country. "But that doesn't mean anything if people can't get to where they can get that help."
Yukon NDP leader Kate White speaking to reporters (file photo). She says the Yukon has the most progressive dental program in the entire country. "But that doesn't mean anything if people can't get to where they can get that help."

Yukon NDP Leader Kate White says Dawson fell through the cracks of the territory's healthcare system. 'We have the most progressive dental program in the entire country. But that doesn't mean anything if people can't get to where they can get that help.' (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

'Is it dental or is it a medical emergency?'

Kate White, Yukon NDP leader, felt Dawson had fallen through the cracks of the territory's healthcare system.

"When we're talking about severe or catastrophic illness within a person's mouth, the question becomes, 'is it dental or is it a medical emergency?' And I think there is enough research out there to say that if you have a crisis happening in your mouth, it's not so much a choice ... to get it dealt with or not. It is a matter of, at times, life and death," she said.

Had Dawson been in another province or territory, she may still have had to pay for surgery — there just wouldn't be the associated travel costs.

White said she thinks the Yukon Government could be doing more to help people like Dawson.

"We have the most progressive dental program in the entire country. But that doesn't mean anything if people can't get to where they can get that help."

How the gaps might be filled is unclear, but Dawson said a full-time oral surgeon would be a great starting point.

CBC News reached out to the Yukon Government, but didn't receive a response.