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Haida Gwaii woman with intestinal mass worried elective surgeries ‘being forgotten’

With no commercial flights to YVR, Tanya Lavallee says it’s taking her too long to see a specialist
Tanya Lavallee, a community health worker on Haida Gwaii, is pictured in this May 2019 submitted photo. In February, doctors discovered a large mass in Lavallee’s intestine and a surgery was scheduled for March 18, then cancelled due to COVID-19. Health authorities are now resuming elective surgeries, however, Lavallee has found it difficult to see a specialist in Vancouver as needed because commercial flights between Haida Gwaii and YVR are still suspended. (Tanya Lavallee/Submitted photo)

When Pacific Coastal Airlines confirmed its June 1 return to service does not include Haida Gwaii, many residents concerned about COVID-19 spreading to the islands rejoiced.

Air Canada has also suspended service until at least June 30, meaning right now, the only option to get off the island for would-be commercial air passengers is to fly Inland Air as far as Prince Rupert. Or, there is BC Ferries, which continues to operate at winter service levels throughout the pandemic.

ALSO READ: BC Ferries suspends direct service from Bella Coola to Port Hardy for summer 2020

Tanya Lavallee, a community health worker based in Queen Charlotte and Sandspit, said she understands the need to restrict non-essential visitors from travelling to Haida Gwaii during this time, but she also wants to remind residents that not everyone is in the same boat.

“I feel that locals on the island, as much as I love that they’re keeping everyone away, I feel like the people who have to leave for elective surgeries, they don’t realize the importance of it,” she said. “I feel like we’re being forgotten about.”

ALSO READ: Northern Health resuming elective surgeries

Lavallee told the Observer she was experiencing digestive issues and other symptoms earlier this year, and scans performed in Prince Rupert in February found she has a mass growing in her intestine.

She was told the mass was too large to biopsy and it may be cancerous, so she would need to see a specialist in Vancouver.

An elective surgery was scheduled for March 18, then cancelled to free up beds and staff for an expected surge in coronavirus patients in need of acute care.

“I was considered an elective surgery because I wasn’t biopsied so we didn’t know if it’s cancer,” Lavallee explained.

“It’s been a nightmare … having this anxiety of knowing that I have this mass growing inside of me and it might be cancer.

“I feel like I’ve got this ticking time bomb inside of me.”

ALSO READ: B.C. hospitals start cancelling elective surgeries in COVID-19 preparations

Lavallee endured the stress of waiting until she received a phone call on May 8, asking her if she could be in Vancouver the next week for the surgery.

“I would have gone, but I couldn’t,” she said, adding that she called local airlines to enquire. “It would have been perfect if I could have flown out and had it dealt with, and didn’t have to bring the kids with me.”

Instead, her surgery was booked for May 28 and she is taking the ferry so she can access the Travel Assistance Program coordinated by the B.C. Ministry of Health. On the winter service schedule, this means she has to leave Haida Gwaii a week before the surgery, on the May 21 ferry, to make her appointment. She will not be able to return until June.

The length of the trip also means she will miss an extended amount of work and must take her three children with her, since they cannot be left on-island without her for that long.

At the time of publication, Lavallee had not told her children about the mass.

ALSO READ: Canadian doctors fret over surgery backlog after immediate COVID-19 crisis

The family will need to either stay with friends along the way, putting them at increased risk of catching COVID-19, or pay out of pocket for several days of accommodation.

“It’s not the trip that I wanted to take my kids on … not something that I want to expose my kids to or myself, especially going into surgery,” she said. “The arrangements are crazy … it shouldn’t take me that long.

“I just pray we don’t end up in a shelter.”

ALSO READ: Postponed surgeries will be done, B.C. health minister says

Lavallee emphasized that she understands many residents are worried about non-essential visitors coming to Haida Gwaii and possibly carrying the virus with them, and she is too.

“But I’m so worried that I’m going to get down there and it’s going to be too late,” she added. “I need to be down there and get this out of me.

“Everyone thinks that elective surgeries are minor surgeries … but they’re not thinking of the people who are at higher risk of waiting.

“It needs to be talked about. Who knows how long the planes are not going to be flying to the islands?”

ALSO READ: Village of Port Clements council meets to discuss local vision of B.C.’s restart plan

On May 11, Pacific Coastal Airlines announced it would be resuming service on June 1 on a reduced schedule that did not include Haida Gwaii.

“Our intention is to help provide air service for essential service workers, move important goods and cargo, provide access for customers who need to travel for various medical appointments (unrelated to COVID-19) and continue to offer remote communities access to the essential service of air travel should they require it,” the announcement said.

The reduced schedule includes service between Vancouver and the communities of Victoria, Powell River, Bella Coola, Trail, Williams Lake, Comox, Campbell River, Port Hardy, Bella Bella and Tofino, as well as service between Victoria and the communities of Kelowna and Cranbrook.

At the time, airline president Quentin Smith told the Observer he would like to return to service on Haida Gwaii, however, the company was aware of the ongoing state of local emergency enacted by the Council of the Haida Nation on March 23 and would not return until having “the approval and support of the community.”

Then in a May 21 video update, Haida Nation President Gaagwiis Jason Alsop said there were chartered Pacific Coastal Airlines flights coming into the Sandspit airport “bringing in some essential service workers and medical supplies at this time.”

The next day, on May 22, Smith confirmed the airline was flying in essential service workers, such as BC Hydro workers.

“It’s developing every day,” he said.

He also said the airline has offered to operate a limited chartered flight for people who require air travel, but do not qualify as essential workers, such as people who need to undergo elective surgery off-island.

While such a flight was not available at the time Lavallee left for her surgery, Smith said discussions were expected to continue at a meeting scheduled for next week.

ALSO READ: Pacific Coastal Airlines returns to service on June 1, but not on Haida Gwaii

According to Shannon Miller, communications officer for BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS), Haida Gwaii residents who require emergency surgery during the pandemic are able to be flown off the island with paramedics.

“For critically ill and injured patients on Haida Gwaii, BCEHS makes use of the airports in Masset and Sandspit,” Miller said.

“Most transports are by air ambulance helicopter between Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert.”

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