Celia Deschambeault is speaking out concerning the lack of access to transplant services within the province’s north after seeing what it took for her uncle to access dialysis procedures outside his community, after which donating a kidney to him in 2011.
Deschambeault said her uncle had to depart Cumberland House Cree Nation about 3 times per week for dialysis, and would must clear a whole day’s schedule for the procedure and accompanying trip.
She said people in his position often must travel to Tisdale, Melfort or Saskatoon. Tisdale is the closest at about 170 kilometres from the First Nation community.
Her uncle had been on dialysis for five years when Deschambeault began getting tested in January 2011 to learn if she was a match for him.
“It was a extremely draining process for him,” Deschambeault told Garth Materie, host of CBC’s Blue Sky.
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She said there must be higher access for people within the north, including having at-home dialysis machines. Since 2011, she says the community services have not modified.
“Apart from transportation … there was no support here in the neighborhood,” she said.
“We do not have the services to support the things that they need.”
She believes there must be more education around transplants and the importance of them, and financial support for those seeking to donate.
After she donated her kidney on Nov. 23, 2011, she said there was also a scarcity of aftercare services, or people checking in to see how she was managing after the operation.
“Being within the north, sometimes we’re not as heard as we might wish to be heard,” Deschambeault said.
In 2021, 4 of the 27 adult kidney donations were from live donors, or about 15 per cent, in keeping with the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Deschambeault’s daughter also has a condition meaning she may have a kidney transplant in the longer term, she said.
There have been 115 people waiting for a kidney transplant within the province in 2021 and two people had died while awaiting a transplant, in keeping with the health information institute.
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Before moving to Alberta, Caroline Tait was a component of a think tank a component of an ongoing group called First Nations and Métis Organ Donation and Transplantation Network which focused on the transplants and organ donations within the north.
Tait is a medical anthropologist with interests in Indigenous health and social justice and a professor in the school of social work on the University of Calgary.
Tait said people need equitable access to organ donations, which is not the case for northern residents, and that there is not enough data about how Indigenous people within the north are affected by a scarcity of accessible services — including which populations are receiving the donations by Indigenous or non-Indigenous status.
For instance, she said, if someone resides in La Ronge and has to travel to somewhere like Saskatoon several times for pre-transplant appointments, about 340 kilometres away, it will probably be tougher, especially within the winter months.
If patients “find yourself having to cancel one or two of those appointments due to weather, that is viewed as non-compliance by the medical people,” she said. “That is an equity issue around geography.”
People might also not have access to travel, or give you the chance to afford the travel and time needed for the appointments, she said.
With Indigenous leaders often specializing in other health-care emergencies — like higher rates of COVID-19 through the pandemic, mental health or sexually transmitted infections — the problem of organ donation accessibility is swept under the rug, Tait said.
“None of this is straightforward, these are complex health issues that require time and investment, and so it is a long-term investment to cut back those inequities in organ donation and transplantation and more broadly when it comes to access to dialysis and that,” Tait said.
Tait brought up the potential of using virtual health care, where possible, to cut back the necessity for travel.
She also said people need more education about organ donation and being a live organ donor.
In an email, the Saskatchewan government said it invested in organ and tissue donation in Regina and Saskatoon, the one locations where the surgeries can be found due to specialized care needed.
It also said in 2020-21 the Ministry of Health launched a campaign to boost awareness of the importance of organ donation in Indigenous populations with the knowledge translated into Indigenous languages.
“Access to health services is a crucial priority and the Government of Saskatchewan is continually seeking to adapt for the unique needs for our province’s north,” it said.
The province also said it approved a kidney health unit in La Ronge’s hospital renovation which is currently within the strategy planning stage, and $700,000 was announced within the 2019-20 provincial budget for a satellite dialysis service in Meadow Lake.