When Teakren Cargill was six months old, his mother fed him scrambled eggs, a common soft food for babies to try.
It became a medical emergency.
Teakren was sick to his stomach, his lips and eyes were swollen, his face turned red and he stopped breathing.
Coral Cargill rushed her son to the hospital where he was treated for anaphylaxis and Cargill was told he would need specialist help for a severe egg allergy.
Eight years later, Teakren continues to live with severe allergies – not just to eggs, but also to milk and nuts.
“If a lost fish [cracker] manages to get into his mouth in some shape, he’s in the hospital for seven hours – if he makes it in time,” Cargill said. North Dawn hostess Carolina de Ryk.
If Cargill wants their child to receive ongoing treatment for their condition — including special tests that must be done at an allergy clinic — they need to travel from their home in Prince Rupert, BC, to Vancouver, which requires a multi-day trip. and thousands of dollars in related costs.
Teakren’s case highlights the challenges of accessing specialist allergy care for British Colombians outside the province’s large urban centers.
An estimated 30 percent of those under 18 in BC live with allergies, about seven percent of whom have severe food allergies. There are around 40 allergy specialists available for these individuals – most of them in Vancouver.
This means that people often have to travel great distances to get treatment. In Cargill’s case, she and Teakren take a two-hour plane ride twice a year for a multi-day trip. She is forced to take a vacation from work and has to pay for plane tickets and hotels out of her own pocket.
Dr. Amin Kanani, head of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the University of BC, is one of the province’s few allergy experts. He said some people who live in rural areas of the North actually leave the province for care because it’s easier to travel to Edmonton than to Vancouver.
A seven-year UBC fellowship program brings in two allergy specialist students per year. But Kanani said most prefer to stay in larger urban centers when the scholarship runs out.
“We do our best to have our trainees exposed to smaller communities,” Kanani said. “If some of them like it, I hope they can establish practice there.”
If the province is unable to recruit and retain allergy specialists — or any specialists at all — in more communities outside of Vancouver, Cargill said the government should at least reimburse parents for their travel.
“I don’t know how people who live on a minimum wage and pay rents in today’s market can afford it,” Cargill said. “How did they get there? How did they do it? I don’t know.”
The province says anyone traveling to see an allergist may be eligible for the Travel Assistance Program — if they meet the criteria, which includes having a referral from a doctor or nurse.
Cargill qualifies, but the program does not cover its flights. If she took ferries to her appointments, it would mean taking even more time off work.
“It’s not a practical option for us,” she said.
The Ministry of Health also says that employees can legally take up to five days a year of unpaid leave to care for a member of their family.
But in Cargill’s case, it takes more than five days to travel to Vancouver for appointments and return home. And for many, unpaid time off is simply not an option.
There are some alternatives in place. For example, one of Kanani’s former students periodically goes to Haida Gwaii to see patients.
Some appointments can also be made through telehealth apps, while Kanani is working with a nurse in Burns Lake, about 200 kilometers west of Prince George, who can perform some allergy tests.
But there are still some tests and treatments, such as oral immunotherapy, which must be done in person with the doctor, he said.
Until these options are more widely available, Cargill and her son will continue to travel to Vancouver together until Teakren is old enough to go alone. It’s a lot, but she considers herself lucky to be able to give her son at least some of the care he needs.
“Some people will suffer immensely and their lives will be shortened because they can’t access services because they literally can’t pay. And that worries me a lot,” Cargill said.
North Dawn8:00An allergy alert of a different kind