For years, travel agency owner Max Johnson helped Winnipeggers see the world, while gaining the moniker "globetrotter."
Now, the retiree is taking a trip not for pleasure but to relieve pain.
Johnson, 65, boarded a plane Sept. 16 on the first leg of his journey to a surgical table in Lithuania to replace his left knee.
He believes the provincial government should send other Manitobans to follow in his footsteps.
"I am scheduled to have a knee replacement at the Nordorthopaedics Clinic in Lithuania in October, some 18 months before I could get the surgery here," Johnson said last week.
"There are people with cardiac and renal problems, but the hip and knee problem is mechanical, so they won’t see the patient waiting list go down if people don’t make it to surgery. So with hip and knee, the waiting list just gets longer and longer and more people join it every day.
"By saying it is a ‘waiting list,’ they imply it is managed. But it is really a holding pen and they just put more and more people into it."
Johnson’s surgical travel story is similar to others told last week in the Free Press.
Barbara Higgins and Andy Maxwell both made the decision to pay to have their hips replaced at a private clinic in Calgary, after realizing Manitoba’s wait list for the procedure was so long they might not get the surgery until sometime next year or even longer.
"When you get to your 70s, you don’t know how many years you have left," said Higgins.
Earlier this month, Shared Health released figures that showed about 30,000 Manitobans have had their surgeries delayed because of months-long, COVID-19-related, surgical shutdowns for elective and non-urgent procedures.
Hip and knee replacement surgeries have been particularly impacted, with only 435 surgeries, a drop of 49.2 per cent from the same period in 2019, in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
More than 4,000 hip and knee surgeries have been delayed at the Concordia and Grace hospitals.
A spokesman for Health Minister Audrey Gordon said COVID-19 has impacted the province’s surgical and medical systems as it readies for a fourth wave.
"Throughout the pandemic, we have acknowledged the strain that COVID has had not just on patients who have contracted the virus and their families, but also those who have had surgeries and procedures postponed while the health system responds to the pandemic," the spokesman said.
"Surgical capacity continues to be reduced due to the pandemic. While emergent, urgent and cancer surgical care cases have been preferentially maintained, other surgeries have been disproportionately affected. Shared Health remains focused on catching up on the increased wait lists throughout surgery.
"Our government remains committed to addressing the surgical backlog and has committed $50 million to address the issue."
The province did not respond whether it would pay the cost of sending Manitobans elsewhere to help reduce wait lists.
The Lithuanian clinic is just one of many around the world which markets itself to so-called medical tourists. Whether Nordorthopaedics, Mayo Clinic near Minneapolis or others in the United States, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Singapore — many have put much of their focus on treating people from around the world for surgical procedures which, at home, have months — or even years-long waiting lists.
Johnson said the cost of a knee-replacement surgery in Manitoba was reported to be $21,349 in 2019.
He said the cost for his surgery in Lithuania, aside from air fare, is $16,000. Included in that price is two weeks of post-operative care in a spa, with intensive physiotherapy, accommodation and meals. Johnson said he cashed in air points for the flight, but it would usually be about $2,000 round trip.
"It would be cheaper for the province to pay to send Manitobans there," said Johnson. "Most of (the clinic) patients come from Ireland because the Irish government has a policy that if the surgery can’t be done within three months, they will send you someplace that will do it.
"After the knee is implanted, they make sure it works and you are well on your way. It’s an EU (European Union) country, so the surgical standards are there."
It’s not the first time Johnson has decided to jump out of a long line for surgery. He paid about $25,000 to have a hip replaced at a Montreal clinic three years ago.
"I moved from immobility to functionality immediately," he said. "In the following year, I paid more in income tax in Manitoba than the cost of the surgery. Had I waited here, I would have been in a wheelchair, severe pain, and useless. I wouldn’t have been able to work.
"Yes, I am fortunate to be able to afford this, however, when one looks at the amount of money spent on say trucks, a $15,000 loan over two years is $600 per month and one gains two years of life," he said.
"I realize that we are simply unused to paying for services — and, frankly, we should not have to do so in our system — but given the choice between living and waiting, the costs are manageable."
There is only one way the Manitoba government can reduce its long wait lists for surgery, Johnson said.
"The government simply has to spend the money — there is no other way," he said. "The loading pens will just get fuller and fuller. It’s stupid to ignore."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.