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'We're just at a loss': Sask. family struggling to pay for specialist pediatric care out of province

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A Saskatoon family is concerned about the health of their son nearly a year after Saskatchewan’s only pediatric gastroenterologist (GI) left the province.

Zach Engen, 15, was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) in October 2020, when he was 11-years-old.

EoE is a rare condition involving the esophagus becoming inflamed and narrow. Because of this, Engen wears a feeding tube and can't eat solid foods.

And for nearly a year, he’s had to go out of province for treatment.

"He's at high risk of developing esophagus cancer. And he's only 15, going to be 16 here this month, actually. It's causing a lot of emotional drain on his body because he's also autistic. So he doesn't understand why he has to be like this," said Alyssa Weber, Engen's mom.

Dr. Simone Nicol closed her practice last May, and the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) has been unable to fill that position, or any additional pediatric GI doctor slots.

With no doctor to see, Weber and her son flew to Toronto last month to see a specialist to check on his condition. Now the duo is preparing for another trip next month, checking to see if surgery is an option after discovering of Engen's stomach is inside his esophagus

"We're just at a loss... it's getting so emotional that half the time I'm not sleeping right and because I'm worried about what we're going to do to get to Toronto," Weber said. "Or what we're going to do when he's here because when he's here, there's no doctor to take him to the hospital if he needs to be admitted, because she's in Toronto."

However, the province says help is on the way.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Everett Hindley said the SHA is finalizing contracts with two full-time pediatric GI doctors to work at the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital in Saskatoon, which will also be supplemented by added support staff.

"So that when we do get those pediatric gastroenterologists hired and signed a contract, there is a full support team around there that can provide the wide range of services that come under that particular speciality," Hindley said.

The help can't come soon enough for Weber. With little money to spend, she's struggling to pay her way to Toronto.

She and her husband started a GoFundMe campaign and a bottle drive to afford the journey, and have sought the services of Hope Air — a national charity offering free travel and accommodations for those seeking care far from home.

"It's causing a lot of stress on me and my husband and it's putting a lot of stress on the children because they're worried. And Zach doesn't understand why he has to have this problem," Weber said.

While help could be on the way for Engen, the Saskatchewan NDP feels it shouldn't take one year to fill a specialist position.

"This is another example of this government dragging its feet on fixing the crisis on healthcare," rural and remote health critic Jared Clarke said.

"This is a systemic problem that lays at the government's feet."

The NDP says Jim Pattison Children's Hospital is short at least 15 pediatric specialists.

According to the Canadian Institute of Health Information, Saskatchewan is the largest province by population without a pediatric GI. Three provinces in Canada don't have a pediatric GI while Quebec has 15, Ontario has 16, British Columbia has seven, Manitoba has two, and Nova Scotia has one.

Hindley admitted the province could have been recruiting earlier, but said Saskatchewan is competing with many other provinces and countries for specialists, and that's why it's taking so long to recruit in certain areas.

"Supply and demand is part of it," he said. "These are highly sought after positions."

Weber and Engen continue to fundraise to get the help they need, but they're not sure of the road ahead.

Engen could learn he needs to have immediate surgery, further complicating the trip to Toronto.

"We have to take a flight and we never know when we're coming back," Weber said.

If we have surgery while we're up there, then that means we're away from my other three children longer." 

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