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Northern Alta. man stuck in Edmonton indefinitely for dialysis treatment

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A northern Alberta man is not expecting to be home for the holidays because he needs regular dialysis treatment and the nearest facility that can take him on is 200 kilometres away.

Rick Hilligas gets dialysis three days a week in Edmonton, with a two-day break every Sunday and Monday. His accommodations in the capital city are covered.

However, he has made the four-hour round trip back to his town, Plamondon, only once since starting the regimen in mid-October. Driving the distance regularly, Hilligas says, is not financially feasible and potentially dangerous in the winter.

The situation is frustrating for him, as a new dialysis unit 30 kilometres away from his home opened four years ago.

"I'm wondering why they would spend the money to have it there and then I can't access it," Hilligas told CTV News Edmonton in a recent interview.

He says he was not given a clear explanation as to why the William J. Cadzow - Lac La Biche Healthcare Centre couldn't take him on as a patient.

"The reason was there was no dialysis available for me because, for whatever reason, they were full."

Nor was Hilligas told how long he would have to get treatment in Edmonton.

"I started on Oct. 13 and expected to be home by the beginning of November. Well now, we're almost to the beginning of December," he said. "They can't tell me when I can go home or even if I can go home."

FACILITY FULL

The Lac La Biche dialysis unit was opened in 2018 – replacing a dialysis bus – to increase access in Alberta's north medical zone.

It operates Monday, Wednesday and Friday and has capacity for 12 patients per day – six in the morning and six in the afternoon.

An Alberta Health Services spokesperson told CTV News Edmonton the facility currently serves 12 patients and three people are waiting for a permanent spot at the site.

According to Kerry Williamson, it was identified in October as a priority for expansion, but increasing the number of operating days or taking other action had not yet been approved.

"Because waitlists fluctuate, with numbers changing as often as day by day, and because it takes time to create and staff additional dialysis slots in a community, we consider multiple factors to ensure that there will be ongoing demand before moving forward with an expansion," he said in a statement.

"As of November 2022, the longest an Alberta resident has been waiting for their preferred dialysis unit is approximately six months," he added.

Alberta's health critic, NDP MLA David Shepherd, says other Albertans have contacted him about needing to travel for health-care access, although Hilligas is the first he has heard from about needing to stay in another city indefinitely.

He noted it's common to have to travel for special treatment or operation, but called it "unacceptable" Hilligas can't be served by a facility in his own community and blamed the situation on the United Conservative government's "act last and act least" approach to health care.

CTV News Edmonton reached out to the ministry of health for comment on this story.

In the last year in the north medical zone, AHS has opened a dialysis unit in High Prairie, expanded an existing unit in Grande Prairie, and increased access to home dialysis.

'I JUST WANT TO GO HOME'

The executive director of the northern Alberta chapter of the Kidney Foundation, Flavia Robles, also says Hilligas' situation is somewhat common.

The foundation runs a program that offers financial support to kidney patients travelling 40 kilometres or more one way for treatment. On average, participants travel 275 kilometres in one direction.

"That, for sure, is a huge barrier for individuals," Robles said.

"Dialysis should be called life support. What happens if you don't do that? … Too many Albertans are having to face that from the rural community, especially in the northern Alberta region."

It's why the foundation, similar to AHS, recommends at-home treatment where possible and advocates for organ donation.

Hilligas is adamant his healthcare in Edmonton has been excellent. It is the absence of a light at the end of the tunnel – of knowing if he'll have to wait six months to get into Lac La Biche's unit – that upsets him.

"The staff's been great. I've had nothing but great care," he explained.

"I just want to go home. That's where my family is. That's where my support network is. That's where I want to be. And they cannot even give me an answer."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Marek Tkach

 

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