Whitehorse woman spending months in Vancouver for hemodialysis treatment

A kidney patient from Whitehorse who’s been in Vancouver for treatment since the summer says the lack of in-centre dialysis in the Yukon is “baffling.”

Nellie Njootli has been living with kidney problems her whole life. She had her first kidney transplant 20 years ago, when she was nine. Last summer, that kidney failed, and she was sent to Vancouver for treatment.

Since then, Njootli requires three hemodialysis treatments a week. She’s spent the past six months in Vancouver because there’s no in-centre dialysis in the Yukon. She hasn’t been able to come home to Whitehorse at all during this period.

“Being away from home and going through all of this has definitely been emotionally taxing,” Njootli said. “And not only that, but I’ve been here without an income since June. So it’s also been quite financially taxing as well.”

At-home dialysis only option

Njootli is currently awaiting a kidney transplant, which could take up to five years. In the meantime, she’s waiting for surgery to get a peritoneal catheter. That will allow her to administer peritoneal dialysis — a form of dialysis where the lining of the abdomen filters the blood — at home instead of going to a hospital for dialysis. Once she’s had the surgery, she’ll spend weeks healing and training to do dialysis on her own before flying back to Whitehorse.

A woman sits up in a hospital bed.  To the left there's a machine with tubes.  The woman has a neutral expression.  She's wearing a mask and is covered by white bedding.
Nellie Njootli gets hemodialysis treatment at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. Njootli says it’s ‘baffling’ she can’t get the same treatment in Whitehorse. (Submitted by Nellie Njootli)

Most kidney patients in the Yukon who require dialysis do it at home. According to the Kidney Foundation of Canada, there can be benefits to that. Patients are able to control their own schedule and dialyze more frequently, for example, leading to better health outcomes.

But if she could choose, Njootli said she’d prefer to get dialysis treatment in a health centre.

“Just the prospect of being taken care of and having people who are confident in knowing what they’re doing, as opposed to me who is visually impaired and not really confident in anything,” she said.

Not the only one

Njootli isn’t the only Yukoner who’s had to travel to get in-centre dialysis. Earlier this month, kidney patient Dawn Jennings told CBC she’s been flying on a weekly basis to get hemodialysis at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver — the facility where Njootli gets her treatments.

Jennings has started a petition to open a dialysis center in the Yukon, which she says has hundreds of signatures.

Whitehorse General Hospital in winter. (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC)

Question of Resources

Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said there aren’t enough patients who require dialysis in the Yukon to open a center in the territory. Currently, she said, fewer than 10 people in the territory get dialysis at home, and fewer than five people travel outside the territory to get it.

To open a clinic here, McPhee said, it’s recommended the territory have a resident nephrologist or internist, as well as several specialized nurses.

She said the Yukon Government could continue to look at other solutions. Right now, the territory provides travel money for patients who need to fly to get dialysis.

“Of course, I can see the perspective of individuals that would like to have this kind of care here in the territory,” she said. “But again, we are working constantly to determine options to best serve Yukoners and are reevaluating services at all opportunities.”

Njootli isn’t satisfied by the territory’s decision not to offer in-centre dialysis.

“I personally think it’s a bit short-sighted and baffling,” she said.

She hopes that by the time she has to get another kidney transplant, the situation in the Yukon will be different.

“When my second kidney eventually fails, hopefully decades down the line, will treatment near home be an option then? I don’t know,” she said. “I just think that if there was a dialysis center in the Yukon, I could have been home months ago.”

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