Ontario commits $32 million more to combat dangerously long waits for stem cell transplants
Laura Hillier’s legacy lives on as the province has pledged $32 million in new funding this year to shorten dangerously long waits for stem cell transplants.
The money set aside in the 2017 budget means 150 more Ontarians a year will receive the life-saving cancer treatment, thanks to the Burlington teen who revealed patients underwent unnecessary chemotherapy treatments because of the delays.
The 18-year-old graduate of Nelson High School died Jan. 20, 2016, fighting for better access to the treatment she never got.
“Laura’s advocacy will help a lot of others,” said her mom, Frances Hillier. “I’m really happy that there is attention to this and in the budget there is a focus on this.”
Hillier sits on a provincial consult group that had a role in securing $30 million in new funding for stem cell transplants a year ago.
Ten million dollars of that went directly to the Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre for a dedicated unit with 15 in-patient and five outpatient beds.
A $3.5-million fundraiser is underway to build and equip the new unit, headed by the foundation.
“I’m really happy with the progress,” said Hillier. “I’m pleased that the Ministry of Health has continued committing to correcting this problem in the province. If we carry on the way we have been the last year or so we’re going to have some really great improvement and great care for patients.”
Laura was a promising actress and singer who had been accepted to Brock University to fulfil her dream of becoming a drama, French and biology teacher, when the acute myelogenous leukemia she had beat in 2010 returned about two years ago.
She had a donor and was ready for a transplant in July 2015, but wait lists were up to three months long in Hamilton.
Afraid she would die before getting the treatment, she publicly raised alarm about the delay.
When she relapsed, she made her mother promise she would not die in vain.
Her story had a profound effect, with the wait now down to between four to six weeks at Juravinski.
“We’ve increased the number of patients receiving transplant by a lot,” said cancer centre CEO Dr. Ralph Meyer. “It has been a very good team, who have worked extremely hard. We’ve been fortunate to be able to recruit some new staff, extended hours and redesigned some of the processes.”
He doesn’t know yet how much money Hamilton will get from the new funding set out in the budget. But he plans to use it to continue to increase the number of patients getting transplants, as well as recruit a hematologist.
Meyer hopes it will mean Ontario can stop sending patients to the United States for faster treatment.
“We have not resolved the out-of-country aspect yet,” he said. “It’s been reduced, but it has not been eliminated. Obviously we want Ontario citizens to have a transplant in Ontario.”
The extra money Hamilton has received so far has upped the total number of stem cell transplants to 194 a year from 138 four years ago. The specific type of transplant Laura needed is now up to 73 a year, from 50.
“We’ve reduced the waiting list and that’s important,” said Meyer. But “the number of patients who would benefit from a transplant continues to increase, so we need to gain capacity.”
Laura Hillier died Jan. 20, 2016, fighting for better access to the treatment she never got. The new funding will help others on a shortened wait list.