A woman from northern BC is battling multiple myeloma that she believes could have been contracted much sooner had she had a primary care physician to put together the puzzle pieces of her symptoms.
Laurie Mercer, 57, a Nisga’a woman living in Terrace, is currently in Vancouver General Hospital after a tumor grew so large it fractured one of her vertebrae.
She said the tumor growth left her in excruciating pain but that five doctors at the walk-in clinic have not fully investigated the cause and believes her story is another example of how a shortage of GPs leads to fragmented care.
“I know I’m not a special case, but I’m someone who falls between two stools,” said Mercer.
She said she also questioned whether she was receiving proper care because of systemic racism within the medical system.
“Unfortunately, people see me as an indigenous woman. And some… would reject me because of my ethnicity.”
In 2017, Mercer said a blood test revealed a low white blood cell count, which could be an indication of cancer.
She said the walk-in clinic doctor advised her to wait and see if things progressed. She didn’t have a doctor at the time.
Three other walk-in clinic doctors told her the same thing over five years. A fourth, who she saw virtually, did say she would get a referral from a specialist, but Mercer said it never came.
She believes that further investigation was warranted as the situation became much more serious.
Fight to be heard
By May, Mercer was in extreme back pain and made multiple visits to Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace, insisting something was seriously wrong.
On one occasion, she had to protest to a doctor for hours to be admitted for further treatment. She said she felt ignored and rejected.
“He kept talking over me every time I tried to talk. I just said, I’m your patient, you have to listen to me.”
More substantial imaging discovered what was initially thought to be a cyst on her spine, but it was in fact a tumor. The tumor, the source of her back pain, caused a vertebra to fracture.
Six years after a blood test showed a low white blood cell count, she was flown to Vancouver for surgery. On Wednesday, a biopsy revealed multiple myeloma — cancer starts in white blood cells.
Minister says doctors are being hired
Mercer believes a family doctor would have given her a better chance of early detection.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said more health workers are being hired.
“It’s often challenging in rural areas and smaller areas of BC,” Dix said, but highlighted an extensive effort to get internationally trained GPs employed.
Mercer also questions whether her story is an example of anti-Indigenous health care attitudes. It is a problem identified in 2020 in the provincial In Plain Sight report.
The report found that health professionals sometimes base care decisions on stereotypes. And it noted that the consequences of those biases can be deadly.
“These things are much deeper in our subconscious than we know,” said Farah Shroff, a UBC professor and researcher of health equity. “Most people don’t intend to do these things because they’re bad people…Most Canadians have unconscious biases.”
Shroff says that patient disbelief is one of the most common ways these biases manifest. Women can be seen as hysterical and Indigenous people can be seen as just plain addicted.
Recognizing that more needs to be done, Dix reiterated the government’s commitment to implement the recommendations of the 2020 report.
Mercer expects to begin chemotherapy soon. She is apprehensive about returning to Terrace as her treatment progresses.
“Mills Memorial Hospital needs to build my confidence and reassure me that if I go in there for my chemo, they won’t turn me down,” she said. “Because my life depends on it now.”
The Northern Health Authority, which manages Mills Memorial, did not respond to requests for comment within the deadline.
For inspiration in her fight against cancer, Mercer’s grandchildren drew a picture of her RV and car that was taped to the wall of her hospital.
Her prognosis is good. She hopes to go camping with them soon.