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Annapolis Valley man’s Lyme disease pills seized at U.S. border

Donnie Blenus firmly believes his days were numbered when this photo was taken about a year ago. The treatments he credits with his steady recovery are now on hold after the medications he brings in from the United States were seized at the border in June.
Donnie Blenus firmly believes his days were numbered when this photo was taken about a year ago. The treatments he credits with his steady recovery are now on hold after the medications he brings in from the United States were seized at the border in June.

CANNING, N.S.  - Donnie Blenus doesn’t hold back when he talks about how close he was to death one year ago.

“I was in dire straits of not being around much longer. I was probably going to commit suicide because I was really sick and I just couldn’t live with it,” the 55-year-old said in recent interview.

He suffered from excruciating pain, Bell’s palsy that made one side of his face droop, fatigue, vision loss and brain fog – to list a few symptoms.

“I couldn’t go to town without getting lost, I couldn’t remember my own kids’ names.”

“The worst thing I had was… like a cold, wet rag on my brain. It just felt like there was always a cold, wet rag on the inside of my head.”

‘Getting sicker and sicker’

He was first diagnosed with Lyme disease by a doctor in Sackville about a year ago, but Blenus believes he was infected by a tick bite that occurred more than three years before that.

“It was just like a thousand things going on and we couldn’t figure out what was going on – and I was just getting sicker and sicker,” he said, noting that his case was difficult to diagnose because the symptoms were often attributed to the significant injuries he sustained in bad motorcycle accident that happened about six months after the tick bite that resulted in a bull’s-eye rash, swelling and, later, hospitalization for a bout of necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria.

The head-on collision near his home between Canning and Scott’s Bay left him with severe injuries, including a broken shoulder and pelvis, broken ribs, two broken bones in his back and punctured lungs.

He still struggles to find the words to describe how agonizing the days that followed motorcycle accident were, but it’s the battle with Lyme disease that pushed him to the breaking point. As his condition worsened, the local contractor felt compelled to walk away from his construction business and focus on his deteriorating health.

“They say with Lyme disease… anything to do with pain, multiply it by ten,” he said.

Donnie Blenus is pushing for changes that will allow Lyme disease patients from Nova Scotia to access the same treatment he’s been receiving from a doctor in the United States.

Back from the brink

Blenus grabs his cellphone and points to a telling head-and-shoulders photo from a year ago.

His face is swollen with a flushed complexion, and his glossy eyes are nearly shut.

“Just think if you had no thought pattern in your head. You just can’t help yourself,” he said.

Today, the 55-year-old is a far cry from the tormented man pictured in that photo. The turning point came soon after a friend suggested he contact fellow Kings County resident Archie Lockhart, who also battles Lyme disease.

Feeling he was only getting worse with the treatment methods available in Nova Scotia, Blenus agreed to go see the American doctor who had been treating Lockhart for Lyme disease, Maine-based physician Dr. Richard Dubocq.

Blenus received a second diagnosis in Maine, and started a new treatment program.

“I’m back, ”he said.

“I think I’m 80 per cent better than I was a year ago.”

He started travelling to the United States at three-month intervals, having blood tests done in Nova Scotia and the results sent to Maine before making each trip. He said the medications are costly, with a complete refill adding up to about $2,500 in out-of-pocket expenses, but worth it.

“All of the antibiotics that I get in the States are legal here… the catch is… I have to take eight twice a day for three to four years,” he said, noting that this long-term treatment method is not prescribed by doctors in Nova Scotia.

“I have two to three doctors up here that would love to treat me, but they’re not allowed to treat me.”

Donnie Blenus recently had about $750 worth of Lyme disease medication prescribed by a doctor in the United States confiscated at the border.

Life-changing medications seized

The last journey to Maine left Blenus in a state of frustration and panic when his medications – about $750 worth of prescribed pills – were seized the border crossing station in St. Stephen, N.B. in June.

“They said there’s a new law that came out in April and no longer can you buy a drug outside of Canada if it’s sold inside of Canada,” said Blenus, who implored Canada Border Services Agency officials to reconsider.

Blenus firmly believes the medication prescribed by Dr. Dubocq saved his life, and he fears his condition will continually worsen if he’s forced to go without it.

“What I want is for the government to change the laws in Canada so that doctors can start treating for Lyme disease,” he said.

Blenus hired Kentville-based lawyer Chris Manning to review his dilemma from a legal standpoint.

“What Mr. Blenus asserts is that the medications are legal, but they’re legal individually in Canada, but not collectively,” said Manning, who noted that he is currently gathering information pertaining to the matter.

Based on his own experience and the conversations he’s had with fellow Lyme patients, Blenus is confident he’s not alone in his pursuit of treatment.

“I think there’s tens of thousands of people that are sick with Lyme disease that don’t know it – because I didn’t know it,” he said.

“You would not believe how many people that’s called me from across Canada that are in dire straits. Most people that I know cannot afford to go to the States.”

Donnie Blenus plays with his dogs in the yard of his home near the Canning area’s Look-Off destination.

Calling for a change in regulations

Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson Gary Holub said there are some circumstances wherein drugs that are not available in Canada can be acquired through Health Canada’s Special Access Programme.

“Requests are considered on a case-by-case basis and the decision to allow a drug to be imported takes into consideration the severity of the condition, therapeutic alternatives, data supporting the use of the drug and availability from the manufacturer,” wrote Holub in an e-mail July 13.

“A drug would not be accessed via the SAP when marketed alternatives are available in Canada,” he added.

Holub listed medical doctors, drug manufacturers, wholesale druggists, pharmacists and tourists from a foreign country as examples of individuals that could be permitted to import prescription drugs.

“The (Canada Border Services Agency) can refer health products suspected to be non-compliant with import requirements to Health Canada to undergo an admissibility determination for entry into Canada,” he said, noting that imported products must meet regulations outlined in the Food and Drugs Act (FDA).

Kings North MLA John Lohr has issued a call for change on behalf of Blenus, and other Nova Scotians battling Lyme disease.

“Closing the border to the many Canadians travelling to the US for treatment makes no sense,” he said in an e-mail June 23.

“We can bring nearly anything we want across the border but not life-saving medications?”

Blenus is caught in a “Catch-22” situation, Lohr added.

“He can't bring the meds across the border and can't use his US prescription in Canada. Canadian doctors don't recognize the treatment and will not prescribe it.”

Lohr said he does not understand why the treatment method that has resulted in noticeable improvements for Blenus cannot become commonplace closer to home.

“It's time Nova Scotia adopted US treatment guidelines for Lyme disease.”

As for Blenus, he hopes his story will result in a thorough review of the Lyme disease treatment guidelines in Nova Scotia – and soon.

“There’s going to be millions of people if they don’t find a cure for it. It’s only going to get worse. The ticks are everywhere,” he said.

“It’s getting worse all the time.”

More about ticks

1.     Ticks get infected with borrelia burgdorferi by feeding on mice, squirrels, birds and other animals carrying the bacterium. Lyme disease can be spread when these infected ticks bite humans or pets, but an infection is less likely to occur if an attached tick is removed within 24-36 hours.

2.     Blacklegged ticks are generally found in grass, shrubs, leaves, forests and wooded areas. Take preventative steps when visiting areas that likely have ticks.

3.     The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to guard against tick bites by wearing clothes that cover the skin and closed-toe shoes, pulling socks over pant legs, wear light clothing and using repellents with DEET.

4.     After spending some time in the woods, conduct a full body check to search for ticks.

5.     If a tick is attached, use clean tweezers to grip the head as close to the skin as possible and slowly pull it straight out. Disinfect the area once the tick is out.

Source: Government of Canada Lyme Disease Prevention Toolkit

 

 

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