‘Didn’t even put her in the ring’: B.C. family says health care system failed their mom

Click to play video: 'Family of B.C. woman speaks out about battle with cancer, lengthy wait for treatment'
Family of B.C. woman speaks out about battle with cancer, lengthy wait for treatment
The family of a Vancouver Island woman is speaking out about their mother's battle with cancer and her decision to end her life in the face of a long wait for treatment. Kylie Stanton reports. – Dec 14, 2023

The family of a Vancouver Island woman is speaking out about their mother’s battle with cancer and the lengthy wait she faced for treatment.

Samia Saikali, 67, started having stomach-related issues in December last year.

Her symptoms continued to escalate and in mid-March, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

“My mom was a vivacious, loving, caring mom, friend, sister, aunt who loved life, who travelled,” Danielle Baker, one of Saikali’s daughters told Global News.

“She had retired seven years ago and moved to the island and she was travelling in her retirement. She was all over the world. She was part of the community. She’d just gotten a puppy. She was so part of our lives and our grandchildren’s lives and she was a teacher her whole life. That was my mom.”

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Baker said her mom was part of every step of their lives. She would babysit her grandchildren and take them on fun outings and spoil them.

“I think that was the saddest part for her, is to leave them,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Woman claims BC Cancer denying her follow-up care'
Woman claims BC Cancer denying her follow-up care

Saikali met with a surgeon in April who told her that she had stage 4 cancer and was deemed inoperable.

“I mean, we were just in disbelief,” Baker said.

“This was my mom walking her dog, you know, biking on her spin bike at home. She was so active and we couldn’t believe that this was the case. We thought she just had bad acid reflux and to know that actually, no, this is a life-limiting, you know, a terminal illness was just, we were in absolute shock.”

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The surgeon told the family that the only course of treatment was likely palliative care, which could include some chemotherapy and possibly immunotherapy and Saikali had been referred to the BC Cancer Agency.

“From what he, his understanding of this type of cancer, she was looking at three to six months without treatment and with treatment possibly extending her life to to about a year,” Baker added.

“And so, you know, that was a little lifeline that he threw us. And almost immediately afterwards, he said, ‘But I will share with you that I am sharing that wait times with BC Cancer right now are weeks to months,’ and just the wind was taken out of our sails. You know, it was cruel to be given a terminal diagnosis and the one person who can answer your questions, who can tell you what your options are, is completely inaccessible to you. And you just have to wait and hope that they pick you up.”

It took 10 weeks from that March appointment with the surgeon for Saikali to see an oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency.

Click to play video: 'Vancouver Island cancer patient highlights struggle for care in B.C., seeks treatment in U.S.'
Vancouver Island cancer patient highlights struggle for care in B.C., seeks treatment in U.S.

“The word cruel comes to mind,” Baker said.

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“Cruel to be given such a terrible diagnosis and then told to just wait and sit and wait. And wait and wait to be picked. And knowing that every week my mom’s case was put on the table and maybe her outcome wasn’t the greatest, and maybe that’s why she wasn’t picked that week.”

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When Saikali was first diagnosed, she told her family she will do whatever she can to fight.

“I really believe that our health care system and BC Cancer didn’t even put her in the ring,” Baker said.

The family would call the BC Cancer Agency multiple times a week but they could never find out where Saikali was in the queue to be seen, Baker added. They were told to call back.

They finally received a call at the end of May that Saikali would have her initial consultation with an oncologist and that’s when they learned she was a candidate for chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

But it was already too late.

“Because my mom had and I’ll say this, accepted treatment from BC Cancer, so she was going to go through with chemotherapy, she’d accepted her treatment and it coincided with the exact moment where the cancer had spread in her abdomen,” Baker said.

“The fluid was building up and she needed a drain. She needed it twice and BC Cancer, the oncologist knew that’s what she needed. And every time we would get close to a chemotherapy appointment, the fluid had built up to a point where it was excruciating for her and debilitating. And there’s no way she could start chemotherapy at that point.”

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Saikali couldn’t get an appointment to get the fluid drained, as it has to be done at a hospital, Baker explained, and they were told to go to emergency.

“So there’s somebody with stage 4 cancer who’s in debilitating pain, being told we can’t do anything for you if the appointments aren’t fast enough, what we can do. So go to emergency, sit there for over a day for the emergency doctor to finally tell you exactly what everyone else knows you need and to get that,” Baker said.

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She said she would cry on the phone with BC Cancer and tell them her mom has received no treatment, only an initial consultation, and that is when the palliative care team stepped in and said they were going to bring Saikali into the hospital and reassess the situation.

Baker said her mom tried three times to try and get chemo but she couldn’t take it anymore.

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“I think the anxiety and just the, in her words, the inhumane treatment of having to sit in emergency to get these procedures, to try to get herself there. She was so depleted, she was in so much pain and she truly felt cast aside. She knew that it was too late for her and that she, you know, she couldn’t take it anymore.

“And that’s when she decided to control the only thing she could control, and that was how and when she died.”

Baker said her mom chose MAID and the whole family got to be there to offer love and support.

Saikali passed away on June 22.

Samia Saikali and her three daughters. Submitted by the family
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According to the BC Cancer Agency, 97.7 per cent of patients start chemotherapy within 28 days.

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However, it’s important to note that is 28 days from when a patient is referred to treatment, which would come after the initial oncology consult.

BC Cancer admits that between testing and diagnostics, the time it takes to that point can add up, in some cases taking months.

Dr. Kim Chi, Chief Medical Officer with BC Cancer told Global News that there is a lot of work being done to address the issues.

“Looking at how we do things, how we can tighten up these timelines, how we can move in more of a parallel type process rather than a series of processes,” he said.

However, B.C. Premier David Eby said Thursday that the province is failing to deliver and ultimately failing patients being diagnosed today.

“They have a right to expect that when they reach out to the health care system they’re going to get the support that they need,” Eby said.

“I am not satisfied with where we are on cancer care in the province.”

Baker said the entire situation is unfair and cruel.

“This is not okay,” she said. “Not in this in this country, in this province, in this city. That’s not, you know, we deserve access to the specialists.”

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“I said, ‘Mom, when this is over and I have my wits about me again, I will shout it from the rooftops how unfair this has been for you’. And she looked at me and she said, ‘I know, sweetie’.

“She said it’s too late for me, but keep talking about it because it’s everyone who’s coming after me that needs to know and needs the help.”

Click to play video: 'Dire state of B.C.’s healthcare system'
Dire state of B.C.’s healthcare system

Baker’s sister, Rachel Humsinger, also helped care for her mom and said the loss has been huge.

“Because she was so much in our lives, we really felt her absence even more,” she said. “She moved into our suite when she was sick, and so she was really like in our home.

“It’s been completely devastating to, you know, go through the holidays, especially with unpacking all of the decorations and being reminded of all the, you know, the beautiful traditions she instilled in us and can’t even begin to fathom that she isn’t here to be part of those traditions.”

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But the sisters wanted to speak out to tell their mom’s story.

“I think my message is, it’s cruel to make people go through the wait times and have no access to the one specialist who has the answers and can unlock some treatment for them,” Baker said.

“It is cruel to make them wait weeks, two months to access that and something has to be done now and today for the cases that the oncologists are looking at and triaging and having to pit against each other. Something has to be done today.

“We are in a crisis and the 10-year plan isn’t addressing today.”

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