Tia McFarlane has been desperately trying to get an appointment for a neurosurgeon, more than two years after her diagnosis with an expanding pituitary tumour.
The wait for that long-awaited phone call from the surgeon's office continues as her health steadily declines, taking away her mobility and blurring her vision.
McFarlane, 45, now relies on a walker to get around her home in Beresford, about 10 kilometres north of Bathurst. She had a makeshift ramp installed to be able to access the front door.
"I struggle because I don't know what's going on," she said. "It's just really frustrating."
The pituitary gland, at the base of the brain, controls the growth and the function of other endocrine glands. A tumour can cause a number of health complications but can be treated with medication and surgery.
In situations where the tumour expands, removing it quickly can help prevent adverse impacts.
'A ticking time bomb'
The health complications began gradually three to four years before an official diagnosis.
McFarlane was experiencing migraines, blurred vision and hair loss in clumps
"I knew something was wrong, I just didn't know what was wrong at the time," she said.
A hormone level was unusually high in her body, which prompted her gynecologist to refer her for an MRI. The scan detected a pituitary prolactinoma, a non-cancerous tumour, which was diagnosed by a neurologist in Bathurst in September 2019.
The tumour began growing in 2015 and is now pushing on McFarlane's optic nerve and motor centre.
"It's basically being told you have a ticking time bomb in your head," she said. "It was really hard to accept."
The next step was a referral to a neurosurgeon at the Moncton Hospital for removal of the tumour, which was now blurring her vision. The neurologist told McFarlane in 2019 to expect an opening for a consultation in early 2020.
Then the pandemic swept across New Brunswick, putting another layer of pressure on the health-care system and reducing services. That call from the neurosurgeon never came, and she is still waiting.
'I don't feel like myself'
McFarlane waited a year and a half for the second MRI, done in this year, and is still waiting for a third.
It's been more than a year since she last saw a neurologist, despite multiple referrals and dozens of calls.
In July, she started to experience pain and losing feeling in her feet. She currently uses a walker to get around and is also waiting to see a rheumatologist.
With reduced mobility, McFarlane's hobbies of collecting sea glass on the beach, crafting and volunteering through her church have become nearly impossible.
"The loss of use of my legs and hands have taken away so much from me," she said. "I don't feel like myself."
Growing wait for specialists
New Brunswickers are increasingly facing challenges accessing timely care from health care specialists. Throughout the pandemic, that problem has grown worse.
The president of the New Brunswick Medical Society said wait lists for specialists have been growing in recent years.
Dr. Mark MacMillan said a lack of resources such as sufficient support staff limits the ability to provide care for patients efficiency.
"This is obviously an issue about physician retention and recruitment, but it's also an issue in terms of the system itself," he said in an interview.
Wait times vary in the province and can be especially long for surgical intervention, rheumatology and other internal medicines.
Many New Brunswickers also lack easy access to a primary care provider, making it difficult to get referrals to a specialist. Nearly 40,000 people are on the list to get a family doctor or nurse practitioner.
MacMillan said physicians are doing their best but often lack tools, such as accessible to timely diagnostic imaging or hospital resources. More specialists are also needed.
"We don't want to have anyone in New Brunswick wait any longer than they absolutely have to to see a specialist, but unfortunately we are working as fast and as efficiently as we can," he said.
McFarlane has frequently tried calling the neurosurgeon's office for an update on her referral but hasn't been able to speak to someone. She's still searching for answers and wants to know if her tumour has grown since the last scan.
Appointments with other health-care providers, such as a nurse practitioner, have become challenging since the pandemic.
McFarlane said the lack of updates on her condition has left her in despair and worried she'll completely lose her eyesight while waiting. She questions if her vision could have been saved if the surgery hadn't been delayed.
"My life has pretty much stopped, and I don't know what to do," she said.
"We are being failed by our Medicare system right now. We shouldn't have to wait so long and suffer."