While waiting for an MRI, Elaine Foley shifts uncomfortably in her home recliner – one of only two places where she has barely a moment of relief from pain.
After being given a brain cancer diagnosis and two years to live, the Wasaga Beach resident would like to be able to get an unrelated surgery on her back to fix damage from an old injury and make those remaining years good ones.
The current provincial wait times for MRIs and surgery may, however, mean her remaining time will be spent suffering.
“I’m not going to be able to see my grandkids. I go from my room, to this chair, until I go back to my room or the bathroom,” Elaine said. “It’s not the cancer that’s destroying my quality of life now.”
On Aug. 18, 2023, Elaine officially retired from a 35-year career in corrections. At the end of August, she had a sudden and unexpected medical emergency.
She and her husband, Mike, rushed to Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Barrie for answers. The couple was devastated to get the news eight hours later.
“I was trying to make something and I couldn’t turn on my appliances. I couldn’t make myself work. Mike thought I’d had a stroke,” said Elaine.
“It was brain cancer.”
More specifically, lung cancer had metastasized into Elaine’s lung, chest and brain. She was rushed to Toronto into surgery to remove the cancer, and eight days later the couple returned home.
Elaine started on radiation while she healed from the surgery. Although she had some complications following her surgery, the couple say their local doctor has been “extraordinary.”
Elaine had been planning to finally have surgery on an old back injury she sustained 20 years ago while at work that damaged a disc and vertebrae in her lower spine.
“I was supposed to have had surgery on it many years ago, but I did not,” she said. “So now, picking the most convenient time of my entire life, it (flared up) right before I retired. I managed to struggle through to retirement, when I thought I could be off my back for as long as I needed.”
Elaine had a preliminary MRI a few months ago on her back, but she says the doctor wrote down the wrong area to check on the forms, so it’s necessary for her to get another on the correct area before she can be advised on surgery.
“I had waited five months for that one. I applied for another MRI. We’re seriously considering going to Quebec and paying for it. But can I take that kind of a drive?” said Elaine, noting it can cost as much as $2,000 for the MRI in Quebec.
According to Ontario Health, the Ontario average for wait times for an MRI depends on severity, with priority-4 patients waiting 88 days, priority-3 patients waiting 28 days and priority-2 patients waiting three days.
According to the province, patients within the priority-1 group are scanned immediately, and are not included in wait-time data.
The province sets target times based on information from surgeons, specialists, and health care administrators, based on clinical evidence. Thirty-four per cent of Ontario patients were scanned within their group’s target time.
In Simcoe County there are two options for an MRI: RVH in Barrie has two scanners, while Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH) has one.
According to data provided by RVH, in 2023, the average wait for an MRI at RVH was 103 days, while at OSMH, it was 49 days.
RVH performefd 22,000 MRIs in 2023, while OSMH performed 9,000.
The provincial government announced in late 2022 that they were approving operating funding for a new MRI lab at Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, and the hospital’s foundation managed to fundraise $5 million to pay for the machine and renovations as of December 2023.
According to most recent estimates from CEO and president of CGMH Mike Lacroix, they expect to have the new machine operational in the first quarter of 2025.
“That’s past the goalpost for Elaine,” said Mike.
Even if Elaine were able to get in to get an MRI and were given a referral for her surgery, the wait times for surgery are also daunting.
According to provincial data, the wait time from getting a referral to seeing a first clinician for a spinal surgery is 126 days for priority-4 patients, 90 days for priority-3 patients and 47 days for priority-2 patients. Within this wait category, 73 per cent of patients are treated within the target time.
The time from decision to actual spinal surgery is 164 days for priority-4 patients, 82 days for priority-3 patients and 85 days for priority-2 patients. Within this wait category, 67 per cent of patients are treated within the target time.
Elaine says she’s been told it could be upwards of a 13-month wait for her to get in for surgery after she has the MRI.
“That’s not going to do anything for me either. I know there’s a line, and people have to wait. But I don’t have time to wait. Can they not make an exception?” she said.
While Elaine says the chemotherapy and radiation may make her feel nauseous or tired, her back pain is debilitating. She currently takes nine milligrams of morphine daily for her back with top-ups available if she needs them just to be able to move, which she said she doesn’t want.
“I’m terrified of drugs because of what I’ve seen working in corrections. In my mind, it’s made me into a junkie,” she said. “If I had known this, I would have had my surgery three years ago.”
Elaine and Mike would like to see a health-care option to be moved up on the provincial wait list due to compassionate grounds.
“Maybe talking about this will help other people down the road. What’s happening isn’t right. For Elaine to sit there in drugged agony waiting for the end... It could be better,” said Mike.
On Friday, the Ontario and federal governments announced a $3.1 billion agreement to improve Ontario's health-care system, part of which promises to increase access to family doctors, reduce wait times, hire more health-care workers, and ensure faster care for Canadians.
"This will also help reduce backlogs for surgeries and wait times in emergency rooms while improving access to care for patients without a family doctor, especially in rural, remote, and underserved areas," notes a provincial release on the announcement.
And despite everything, Elaine remains optimistic.
“I’m blowing through that two-year mark. They can’t pick the day I’m going to die. I don’t believe that,” she said. “I believe in my heart of hearts that my bus is going to keep going.”