Faced with the prospect of eventually leaving the Yukon to receive hemodialysis treatment, Marianne Blythe is advocating to bring the treatment to the territory.
“I think the lack of dialysis in the Yukon is very near-sighted; I think it’s criminal,” Blythe told the Star this week.
Blythe, 70, has polycystic kidney disease, a genetic and incurable condition causing cysts to grow inside the kidneys.
She is in the beginning stages of seeking specialized medical treatment, and presumes that hemodialysis may be an aspect of her recovery journey on the way to a kidney transplant.
Hemodialysis is a blood-cleansing treatment that mimics the function of the kidneys in the case of kidney failure. It has not been made available in the Yukon.
Over Christmas, Blythe became familiar with the widely reported story of Terry Coventry.
He returned home to Whitehorse to die rather than permanently relocate to Vancouver for hemodialysis. In late 2019, Coventry told media he hoped his imminent death would inspire the Yukon government to take action.
Coventry died in early January, inspiring Blythe to pick up the torch.
“When I heard of Terry having to go down to Vancouver, just to get this dialysis, that he was essentially condemned … I became incensed, I was angry,” Blythe said.
Blythe said her family in Alberta has been urging her to move down south so that she will be located closer to treatment options.
The prospect of leaving the territory and facing the same situation as Terry has since been a source of anxiety and fear for Blythe.
“I don’t want to leave the Yukon,” she said.
“I was a teacher here for 25 years, and I think I’m a valuable part of the community. I have a little house that I love, and it’s full of old bits of junk that I love.”
For Blythe, requiring hemodialysis is a little farther down the road. She is advocating, not just for herself, but for anyone in the Yukon who might face a similar situation.
She noted that the Yukon has an aging population, likely boosting the need for dialysis treatment over the next several years.
“Kidney disease is, unfortunately, well and truly alive …. I think the party that’s in power (the Yukon Liberal Party) is looking at this through very narrow optics,” Blythe said.
Over the last month, Blythe has been in touch with NDP Leader Kate White, a vocal advocate for hemodialysis in the past several years, as well as Coventry’s sister, Kelly.
Kelly Coventry told the Star she has been talking with Blythe about keeping the fight for dialysis alive in her brother’s memory. Continuing to advocate for the treatment was a promise Kelly made to him before his death.
Last month, Kelly started an advocacy group on Facebook. She invites Yukoners who are affected by the lack of dialysis to get in touch with her.
“I know there’s been quite a response, and concern seems to be underlying for everybody with an aging population and with the many people in the Yukon having diabetes,” Kelly said.
“Dialysis is going to be something that is very much needed in the not-too-distant future.”
Kelly and Blythe say the government needn’t necessarily provide an entire dialysis unit, which they understand would be costly and take up space at the hospital, where rooms are already at a premium. One room would be a start, Kelly said.
“They’re making it out to be a huge big thing, and I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said.
Kelly is working on compiling a cost comparison of Terry’s treatment in Vancouver versus in Whitehorse through an access to information request, and is hoping she can rally more Yukoners in support.
“Marianne said she’ll be right beside me, she wants to work on getting this happening,” Kelly said.
In December, Pat Living, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Services, told the Star the Yukon isn’t able to provide hemodialysis because there aren’t enough people who require it.
This information is based on advice given by the B.C. Provincial Renal Agency, the organization that currently provides support to Yukoners who require hemodialysis and transplants.
The territorial government was advised at least 65 individuals are required to support in-hospital treatment. Fewer than 10 patients required dialysis in the Yukon over the past five years, Living said.
“Some patients in Yukon are suitable candidates for in-home dialysis here in Yukon but is offered through B.C.; and some patients are candidates for peritoneal hemodialysis which can also be done at home,” Living said in an email.
“We have fewer than five patients in need of in-hospital dialysis so we continue to treat these patients outside the territory.”
The Star requested the number of Yukoners diagnosed with kidney disease in the territory. The department did not provide that information for this story.
In October 2018, White asked Health Minister Pauline Frost how many Yukoners have diabetes. Frost said she didn’t know – but that her department was working with the Canadian Institute for Health Information to collect that number.
The Yukon and Nunavut are the only two Canadian jurisdictions that don’t offer in-hospital hemodialysis.
The N.W.T. offers hemodialysis at health centres in Yellowknife and Hay River, despite the territory’s similarly low population.
Damien Healy, the communications manager at N.W.T. Health and Social Services, told the Star hemodialysis is offered as part of the territory’s 2017-2020 strategic plan.
Fighting chronic diseases is one of the six priorities highlighted by the N.W.T. government in that plan. More than 450 N.W.T. residents have been identified as having kidney disease, Healy said. This is due to rising obesity rates and diabetes, as well as high rates of smoking.
The dialysis units in Hay River and Yellowknife can accommodate eight and 30 patients, respectively.
Healy noted that Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital Foundation and the Wellness Foundation of Hay River are instrumental in fundraising for the operation of the units.
The N.W.T. units are supported by Alberta Kidney Care North, in a similar fashion as how the Yukon leans on the B.C. Renal Agency.
Blythe told the Star she is impatient to see Yukon-specific data outlining how many people suffer from kidney disease.
She questions why the Yukon government seems to be stonewalling something that the N.W.T. is able to pull off – with the same population restrictions.
“I felt the Liberal response, that there just aren’t enough people, was very cold and totally un-empathetic, and I was amazed there was no statistics and no data,” Blythe said.
“You’re saying there isn’t enough, but how many is enough? Is one life not enough? Was Terry’s life not worth it?”
Blythe said she is planning to “dig in her heels” on the issue. She intends to compose her story for publication, in more detail, and spend some time appealing to the government.
“I’m prepared to become a spokesperson,” Blythe said.
“I don’t have the background, but I do have the faulty kidneys … hemodialysis, for me, is down the road, but who better to make a statement than someone who might have to use it?”
By GABRIELLE PLONKA Star Reporter