Winnipeg man, 78, fears dying in pain after four years of waiting for spinal surgery

A man from Winnipeg says he’s been waiting for a spinal surgery for nearly four years and despite recent promises by the province to alleviate Manitoba’s surgical backlog, he still hasn’t received an answer from his surgeon on when his procedure can take place. 

Garth Merkeley, 78, says in September 2018, he was told by a surgeon at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre that he needs a spinal fusion — a surgery to permanently connect vertebrae in his spine.

Merkeley says the surgeon told him the wait is lengthy and could take six to nine months. But it’s been nearly four years and there’s still no word on when he will get it, he said. 

“It’s been brutal,” Merkeley said. “You’re trying to carry a lifestyle with your friends, but you can’t do what you used to do so well. It’s hard on your spouse. It’s hard on the family.” 

Merkeley looks over his medical records. Reports from an imaging test he took in Arizona, in January 2022 indicate there’s been progression of lumbar degenerative disease. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Merkeley says he injured his hip, knee and back through many years of exercise and has degenerative nerve issues in his lower back, also known as the lumbar spine. 

His lower body is starting to get nerve damage, the muscles in his legs are atrophying and without this surgery, his condition and pain will only worsen, Merkeley said. 

“I’ll never get it done and I’m going to die in pain needlessly,” he said. “The province has to step up.”

200 patients waiting for spine surgery 

Shared Health, which oversees the Winnipeg Spine Clinic at HSC, said it can’t comment or share details of a patient’s case due to the Personal Health Information Act.

Dr. Peter MacDonald, orthopaedic surgeon and chair of Manitoba’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force, said currently around 200 patients are waiting for spine surgery in the province. 

Dr. Peter MacDonald, head of Manitoba’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force, says the province is sending 19 more patients to Fargo, North Dakota. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

“It doesn’t sound like a big number, but that’s a big number for spine surgery because they’re big procedures,” he said in an interview with CBC. 

A spine surgery can take six hours and there are only seven spine surgeons in Manitoba to meet that demand — one is in Brandon and the rest are at Winnipeg’s HSC, MacDonald said. 

He says there was a backlog of spine surgeries even before the pandemic started and with the pandemic, the backlog exacerbated because of increased demand at HSC. 

Spine program in Fargo expanding 

MacDonald said the province will be hiring an additional orthopaedic surgeon in Brandon and four physical therapists at the spine clinic to alleviate the backlog.

It’s also expanding its project with Sanford Health in Fargo, North Dakota, by sending 19 more patients there for spinal surgery, he said. 

As of April 6, Sanford Health has completed specialized spinal surgeries for 11 patients from Manitoba.

“The program continues to expand. It’s past the pilot phase so it’s not just a small project anymore. We’re growing the numbers and we’re hoping to help as many people as we can,” said MacDonald. 

He said criteria for the Fargo program will expand and spine surgeons in Manitoba are briefed on them. 

Other patients on the waiting list who require simpler spine procedures might be eligible for an operation at Concordia Hospital or the Maples Surgical Centre in Winnipeg, he said. 

Wants out-of-province care 

After consulting with doctors in the United States, Merkeley said he can get a spinal fusion within weeks in California for $31,000. 

He also considered getting it in Dusseldorf, Germany, where the spinal fusion would cost him $70,000, including hospital stay, he said. 

Merkeley says he tries to manage his pain by maintaining a positive lifestyle through exercise and cycling. (Submitted by Garth Merkeley)

Merkeley asked the province to cover an out-of-province spinal fusion, but was told he doesn’t qualify because policy dictates Manitoba doesn’t cover procedures that are available in Canada. 

He also inquired about the Fargo program and didn’t get a definite answer from his surgeon’s office on whether he’s eligible, he said. 

“So that was the end of the story and that’s a sad story. After … years, I’m back with no relief,” he said. “There’s no end in sight.”

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