Natalie Lacasse has had more than 85 doctor and dental appointments in the last two years.
So far, she says she has spent nearly $10,000 — out of pocket — to see specialists about her “complex” health issues, mostly concerning her jaw.
The reason for her frequent visits to see doctors, a maxillofacial specialist, prosthodontist, and general dentist is because Lacasse’s teeth and jaw health have been deteriorating since she was in a car accident when she was 18 years old.
In fact, the Surrey resident does not have any upper teeth.
In October 2021, she removed them because her teeth began to crumble. But due to having a crooked jaw, Lacasse requires specialized dentures, which she couldn’t and still cannot afford because they are not covered under B.C.’s medical services plan. So, she settled for temporary dentures, which have caused her migraines.
Having to pay out of pocket for specialized care is one of Lacasse’s frustrations. But the main barrier, she says, is not being believed by doctors in emergency rooms or primary care.
Medical trauma: dismissal after dismissal
In 2022, Lacasse made the difficult decision to quit her full-time job, when her chronic pain became unbearable during work hours and on commutes.
She recalls collapsing on the SkyTrain, and losing control of her bowels soon after.
So, she was put on long-term disability.
Since then, Lacasse has been in and out of doctor’s offices and dental specialists, in hopes that a health-care professional will take her health issues seriously, and provide her the care she needs.
Despite having had many doctor and dentist visits, Lacasse says she has not received any definitive answers about her chronic illness, and how to treat it.
Some doctors will listen to her, reciting thorough Lacasse’s long medical history, only to respond that she is too “complex” of a case to take on.
“As soon as I'm telling (them) what's going on, they're typing, and then they abruptly stop and just look at me,” says Lacasse.
“And then, they basically tell me, ‘Oh, sorry, like, you've got too much going on for me to help.’ It's becoming absolutely traumatizing.”
Others will dismiss her entirely, she tells Glacier Media.
“It's medical trauma: going around and around and around. Half of the time, doctors don't listen. And then I have to repeat it all. (Past) surgeries usually catch their attention. And then, I have to repeat myself,” says Lacasse.
If Lacasse is able to find a doctor who will listen to her, she believes they'll state her chronic pain — migraines, visual and speech difficulty, jaw and joint issues — are not medical issues.
But Lacasse’s dentists have told her the opposite. Her prosthodontist wrote her a report to present to any doctor so they have all the necessary information.
But only one doctor has taken the time to read that report, says Lacasse.
TikTok community in solidarity
With few practitioners to listen to her, Lacasse started a TikTok account in hopes to share her story, raise awareness about temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and help others who might be in a similar situation.
She has amassed more than 17,000 followers — many of whom shared their own experiences with chronic illness and the failings of the medical system.
“I really can't stress enough how much Tik Tok has actually helped, even just getting medical health advice: how to talk to doctors? It's been absolutely huge.”
Considering out-of-province care
The constant disappointment and dismissal of medical practitioners has her therapist and dentist worried about her mental health.
The frustration with B.C.’s medical system has come to a point where Lacasse is now considering leaving the province to seek care.
This idea was influenced by some comments she received from Vancouverites on her TikTok videos.
“A lot of people have left B.C. because of health care, or they've gone to Alberta instead or to the [United] States.”
Lacasse’s videos have garnered international attention, including doctors in the United Kingdom and South America.
“I've even had doctors in Brazil, and Colombia reach out to me and be like, ‘Hey, if you can make it down here, I'll take you on as my patient. I'm like, ‘I literally can't even get down there.’ And like even dentists and prosthodontists from Europe have reached out to me.”
Although Lacasse appreciates these remarks and offers of help, she faces a big barrier.
“I can't fly because I have no support for my jaw from the elevation and pressure.”
As an alternative, Lacasse’s mother told her that if she can find a doctor who can help her out of province, she would drive her there.
“It's starting to sound like the more feasible option,” she says.
Sexism, stigma in the health-care system
Lacasse’s musings about leaving B.C. is also part of a conversation that Spencer van Vloten from BC Disability hears when he’s speaking with people living with disabilities.
“I've talked to a few people where because they can't get help here their condition gets so bad that they either have to pursue treatments abroad, which most of them can't even afford, or in some cases they're considering MAID (medical assistance in dying).”
Van Vloten also emphasizes the role of sexism in the health-care system for people living with disabilities.
“One of the biggest things is that they're labelled as having some psychological issue of wanting attention, and coming up with symptoms just to get attention. It's mostly women who have chronic illness — there's men too — but mostly women who I've talked with. There's been a real dismissive attitude from the medical system, the health-care system.”
As a result, the stigma of chronic illness, as well as the trauma of not being taken seriously, can create more hesitancy for individuals to find support, he says.
As an advocate for British Columbians living with disabilities, van Vloten says there needs to be better coordination in the public system.
“There needs to be better processes for when someone is in a complex case. We need to be able to get a clear direction, and a clear point of, ‘OK, they should go here, and this ministry or program will work with them.’ It's one of the biggest waste of time and resources out there. Because every time this person gets passed off, they're not getting the help they need."