MANITOBA has the highest rate of death due to stroke of any province west of the Maritimes and remains the only one without a dedicated stroke unit.
According to a report by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadians living in Alberta and Quebec have the best chance of surviving a stroke, followed by those in British Columbia and Ontario.
More than 1,200 Manitobans have a stroke each year, and in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 612 died of one.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Opposition Conservatives have called for the creation of a dedicated stroke unit in Winnipeg for years. There are studies that suggest such facilities can reduce deaths due to stroke and significantly improve recovery.
Debbie Brown, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Manitoba branch, said even Prince Edward Island, with a population of 140,204, according to the 2011 census, boasts a specially dedicated unit devoted to stroke treatment.
"I think that being the size... we are, for us to not have a stroke unit is not right," she said.
Tory health critic Myrna Driedger said she is dismayed by the mortality numbers.
"Nobody should find that acceptable here," she said. "To me that’s a failure of government leadership."
Driedger has twice failed to get the NDP-dominated legislature to support a motion calling for the creation of a stroke unit, which would concentrate specially trained doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and other specialists in one location.
Brown said patients recovering from stroke in Winnipeg may be found in different hospitals and even on different wards of the same hospital. Whether a patient is receiving the recommended frequency and duration of physiotherapy can vary from place to place.
While the Riverview Health Centre is a designated stroke-recovery centre, beds are in short supply, she said.
Health Minister Erin Selby said she is concerned with the higher Manitoba mortality figures, but noted the province has done a good job of preventing stroke in the first place.
"Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a drop of 25 per cent," she said.
While the province has not created a stroke unit, it has implemented or is in the process of implementing most of the nine recommendations to government in the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s national report, including the establishment of a "telestroke" service for smaller centres.
The service will use information technology to link doctors in cities such as Thompson, Portage la Prairie, Steinbach and Selkirk with a neurologist in Winnipeg who can interpret CT scans and determine whether a clot-busting drug should be administered. The first few centres are expected to be hooked up this year with up to eight more in subsequent years.
Selby deflected questions on why the province has yet to create a dedicated stroke unit. But she insisted that it hasn’t ruled out the idea.
"The door is not closed on that. We’re looking into it," she said.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation report said while stroke tends to hit people over 70, it can occur at any age. In recent decades, strokes in people in their 50s have risen by 24 per cent and for those in their 60s by 13 per cent.
Former Winnipegger Carole Laurin had a stroke at age 42 in 2004 when she lived in the city. She’s published a book about her recovery — which is ongoing — and holds her Winnipeg book launch at McNally Robinson Tuesday evening.
At the time of her stroke, her daughter was six and her son was 15.
She felt a sharp pain in her temple, followed quickly by spasms in her left side. She could hardly move.
Doctors told her she would likely need a wheelchair for the rest of her life but she now walks unaided. "It’s going on 10 years and I’m still making recovery," she said.
The former River Heights resident, who now lives in Ottawa, said having a dedicated stroke unit in Winnipeg would be "ideal." She said Canada also needs to invest more in rehab programs for stroke survivors.