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Medical patients in B.C.'s East Kootenay call for more support

Pictured left to right are Debi Hart, Sawyer Sutton and Paul Sutton on March 20, 2024. The family has to travel from Cranbrook, B.C., to Vancouver for treatment of Sawyer's Crohn's disease.  (Corey Bullock/CBC News - image credit)
Pictured left to right are Debi Hart, Sawyer Sutton and Paul Sutton on March 20, 2024. The family has to travel from Cranbrook, B.C., to Vancouver for treatment of Sawyer's Crohn's disease. (Corey Bullock/CBC News - image credit)

Medical patients in B.C.'s East Kootenay region are calling for more support as many are forced to travel for the care they need.

According to the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), cancer patients throughout the Kootenay region who need radiation therapy must travel to a B.C. Cancer centre in Kelowna or another part of the province for treatment.

Others, like nine-year-old Sawyer Sutton and his family, travel more than 800 kilometres from Cranbrook to B.C. Children's Hospital in Vancouver to receive treatment for Juvenile Crohn's disease.

His father, Paul Sutton, says it puts a strain on their lives and finances.

"I know that children's hospital is trying to do their best, but I feel like if we were a little bit closer we might have means to squeak into appointments easier," he said.

Debi Hart holds a photo of her grandson Sawyer, who is pictured in 2021 when he was first diagnosed with Chron's disease.
Debi Hart holds a photo of her grandson Sawyer, who is pictured in 2021 when he was first diagnosed with Chron's disease.

Debi Hart holds a photo of her grandson Sawyer, who is pictured in 2021 when he was first diagnosed with Crohn's disease. (Corey Bullock/CBC News)

Sawyer got sick in 2021, and his grandma Debi Hart says he weighed just 33 pounds at the time.

"He looked like a skeleton, basically," she said.

He was referred to children's hospitals in Vancouver and Calgary, and received two treatments through B.C. Children's Hospital in 2022 and 2023.

Hart says she used every kind of funding support she could find, including provincial programs.

"The reality is, it's not enough," she said.

Crohn's disease is an incurable inflammatory bowel disease. Hart says it's a lifelong condition that will mean frequent trips to get Sawyer the care he needs.

Hundreds of patients travelling for care

In an email to CBC News, PHSA said approximately 500 patients from throughout the Kootenay region travel to a B.C. Cancer centre every year, for an average of 12.5 days of radiation treatment.

In 2022-23, 250 East Kootenay patients were treated for radiation therapy.

There are six regional cancer centres in B.C. The province recently announced the development of four additional centres in Burnaby, Surrey, Nanaimo and Kamloops.

PHSA says B.C. Cancer also has a network of chemotherapy clinics through Community Oncology Network sites in Grand Forks, Trail, Nelson and Cranbrook.

Radiation treatment is not included in that framework.

Cranbrook resident Len Moody, who has prostate cancer, and his wife spent a month in Kelowna for radiation therapy last year. He says he applied for provincial assistance but ended up spending around $6,000 out of his own pocket for a total of 20 treatments.

He says he feels forgotten about in the southeast corner of the province.

"The amount of times you turn the TV on and you hear the amount of money being spent for the medical system … west of Kelowna. It's unbelievable," he said.

Pictured are Cranbrook residents Len and Judith Moody on March 20, 2024 in Cranbrook, B.C.
Pictured are Cranbrook residents Len and Judith Moody on March 20, 2024 in Cranbrook, B.C.

Len Moody of Cranbrook, B.C., and his wife spent a month in Kelowna for radiation therapy last year. (Corey Bullock/CBC News)

In February of last year, the provincial government announced a new 10-year cancer plan at a cost of $440 million.

Last September, B.C. announced $20 million in funding to help cancer patients travel for treatment, with money split between the Canadian Cancer Society and Hope Air to expand existing programs.

"No action was taken for a long time, it was a priority for me, and we've made that change," B.C.'s Health Minister Adrian Dix said in an interview with CBC News.

Local officials pushing for more services

Dix says the province is investing around $40 million to improve services at Cranbrook's East Kootenay Regional Hospital. He also pointed to the $156.5-million expansion of the Dr. F.W. Green Memorial Home in Cranbrook, a seniors' care home, that he says is a priority for the province and the region.

David Wilks, chair of the East Kootenay Regional Hospital Board, wants to see radiation therapy included in plans for the hospital. He says mining company Teck Resources has agreed to donate $15 million to the cause.

"We can raise a gazillion dollars, but if we don't get the buy-in from the province it doesn't matter," Wilks said.

When asked if radiation treatment will ever be a possibility for the Cranbrook hospital, Dix pointed to the four new cancer centres slated for other areas of the province.

"You do need a sufficient number of patients to build a cancer centre," he said.