'Frustration and anger:' Saskatchewan children missing out on health-care services

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Graham Dickson and his partner,Laura Weins,found out they were expecting a baby on the same day Saskatchewan declared a state of emergency at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The province is now in the fourth wave and 11-month-old Helen, who was born premature with medical complications, can’t get the care she needs because of the strain on health care.

Earlier this week, the Saskatoon family showed up for their daughter's regular physiotherapy appointment and was told it would be her last.

“Occupational therapists and physical therapists were being redeployed elsewhere in response to COVID,” Dickson said in a phone interview. “It was a bit of a shock to us, because it was the last thing we had.”

Helen, weighing five pounds and three ounces. was born three weeks early.

Physiotherapy was helping strengthen her core muscles. She can’t sit on her own and is just starting to grab her feet. When she was younger, she couldn’t hold a pacifier in her mouth.

After numerous tests and screenings, the parents have been told she probably has cerebral palsy, Dickson said.

She also has problems with her eyes that may be related.

“She’s cross-eyed and she’s very far-sighted,” Dickson said. “We had a surgery next month to adjust her eyes so she wouldn’t be seeing double anymore. That’s been postponed indefinitely.”

So has an MRI that was supposed to give doctors a better understanding of Helen’s motor-function problem.

“We’ve been told not to hold our breath.”

Saskatchewan is facing a shortage of front-line health-care workers as hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients, most of them unvaccinated.

The province, which has among the lowest vaccination rates of the provinces, had 343 COVID-19 patients in hospital on Friday. Of those, 71 were in intensive care units.

The Saskatchewan Party government has redeployed health-care workers and postponed surgeries and other health-care services to help with the surge.

Dickson said he doesn’t know when his daughter will get the help she needs and worries about the quality of life she will have as a result.

He said he stays up at night worrying and wondering if she will need to be in a wheelchair.

“It’s an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. There’s nothing I can do to change the situation, and it’s coupled with frustration and anger,” Dickson said.

Dr. Ayisha Kurji, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Saskatchewan, said children are feeling the brunt of the pandemic's fourth wave — not necessarily from the virus itself, but through cancelled surgeries, no access to physiotherapy and increasing mental-health issues.

She said Dickson’s experience is not unique. Physiotherapists in rural areas have been redeployed to help with acute care since almost the start of the pandemic, before Helen was born.

“It’s news now that it’s happening in Saskatoon. But there are (rural) kids out there who at the beginning of the pandemic could walk, and then didn’t have access to therapy, and now they can’t walk on their own,” Kurji said.

“It’s huge. It’s devastating. It makes me angry and heartbroken, because this is their whole life ahead of them, and now it’s going to be changed.”

Dickson said early intervention can help Helen. But he doesn't know when she'll be able to get the care she needs.

“We’re a community. We’re neighbours. We’re all being impacted by this,” he said. “And the people who are paying the price are the most vulnerable, like my daughter.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2021.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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