Jim Allan is back in Sidney, finding newfound enjoyment of life after undergoing a procedure in the Philippines to replace damaged veins in his neck caused by a terrible fall more than 30 years ago.
Not only is he feeling normal again, but he says his experience in a hospital in the Phillipines was the first time he was treated as an equal by doctors and as a participant in his own diagnosis and treatment.
These days, Jim frequently runs into old acquaintances around town. He’s re-adjusting to life in Sidney and the Saanich Peninsula, retired now after two years away in Ontario.
He’s jumping right back into the regular routines he enjoyed in a community he lived for 35 years.
“I’ve got no plans to go back to work now,” Jim says, noting that for those first 20 years in Sidney, he ran Manning Press.
“I just want to be able to feel good and so I came back to Sidney, where I love it.”
He’s looking forward to getting out with friends for a beer at the Prairie Inn — maybe some of guys he used to play pickup hockey or golf with on the weekends.
Far beyond a simple retirement and return back to a place he loves, Jim’s return to Sidney also marks a significant change in his life. For years, his friends and family watched him struggle with pain, headaches, nausea, tremors and fatigue.
“I had pressure, constant pressure on the right side of my head,” he says, adding he gave up reading books as a result.
It’s gone now and for him life has gotten better.
But it took too many years to arrive here.
His injury was caused by a fall in Vancouver in 1982 — down 18 steps. He was struck unconscious, but soon came to, injured but seemingly OK and able to recover.
Three months later, Jim’s life would change.
“I began to feel pressure on the right side of my head. Then, under any kind of physical exertion, I would get terrible headaches. Even yard work would lead to headaches.”
It was another blow for Jim, who says he fought off a bout of kidney cancer in 1978.
“I was given a year to live and that’s why I left Vancouver and came to Sidney in the first place. Once you face death, it makes you look at life differently.”
He recovered from that but after the fall his headaches and pressure were problems he says continued and increased. It would put him on a long road, battling a health care system that was helpful on one hand — and frustratingly indifferent on the other.
Jim says his family doctor, Dr. Dave McNaughton, was an advocate for his recovery from the fall. He had Jim looking into all sorts of procedures and treatments and referred him to many specialists in neurology and others.
“I was, at one time, told by one specialist that I had ‘sports headaches.’”
The general practitioners he worked with in B.C. and Ontario, like Dr. McNaughton, always did their best to get him specific care for his injury. However, nothing was diagnosed by the specialists.
“Life in the 1990s was terrible. Especially with the headaches. I tried to continue to play oldtimers hockey but sometimes I’d have a headache for two days afterwards.”
The pain persisted, his right eye began to close and he says he had surgery to keep it open.
Jim would eventually leave Manning Press in 2005 and get into real estate with Re/Max. Yet, he was constantly fighting the health system for answers to his constant pain.
Through his visits to a variety of doctors — and even non-traditional practitioners who he said offered little but false hope — Jim says he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which seemed to explain his symptoms. He met with Dr. Bill Code in Duncan, who also has MS. He went there to discuss the controversial Chronic Cerebro-Spinal Venous Insufficiency (CCSVI) procedure that is said to address compromised blood flow in the veins to and from the brain. Jim himself has undergone various scans that showed he had a blockage in the vascular areas in his head.
“The MS diagnosis was confirmed a couple of times, so I felt the CCSVI procedure would be good.”
Since he could not get the procedure done in Canada, he travelled to Newport Beach, California in 2012 to undergo the surgery. Simply put, doctors insert a probe into a major vein and move it to the site of the blockage. A balloon enlarges at the site and is said to relieve pressure and eliminate the blockage. Jim says it seemed to work.
“I came home and by the second month after recovery, I started running. I thought, ‘this is great!’”
It was a feeling that wouldn’t last.
After retiring and selling his home, Jim decided to move to Ontario. During a flight to Calgary, he says he felt a huge explosion of pain in his head — and the headaches, the same symptoms returned but at a new level of pain. He returned to California a year later and had the same procedure (at a reduced rate), hoping it would take. It only lasted two days before the pain returned.
It got so bad, he began taking prescribed painkillers and was becoming a regular at the emergency room for IV drips of “the strongest things they could prescribe.”
“I knew at that point, I’ve got to do something.”
Jim says he tried to tell his story, telling doctors about his injury and that he thought there was a blockage as a result, somewhere, causing this. He didn’t think it was MS at all and after doing his research, realized he probably wasn’t going to get help in Canada and perhaps not in the U.S.
He turned to overseas hospitals. A friend, Jim Nichol, was living in the Philippines and they connected. Allan ended up talking with doctors there and sent them his files, arranging a trip to see them in January, 2015.
“I’d already made up my mind, that if I couldn’t get the help I needed, I’d … take my own life. When I went, I was just going with hope.”
He wanted to fight. He wanted to see if anyone could help. He arrived in Cebu City in the Philippines and went to Chong Hua Hospital. After meeting for two hours with five specialists in the same room and undergoing a week of tests and scans, they identified blockages and injury to the veins in his neck — in a place where most doctors had not looked, he says.
In a procedure performed by Dr. Arnold Tan, damaged veins were removed from his neck, replacing them with ones from his legs. The surgery was extensive and left a nine-inch scar from above and behind his right ear down to his collarbone. It seemed to have worked and he was able to return home in a month, after a week of recovery in intensive care.
He says his GP told him he does not know if this procedure has ever been done in Canada and is checking with the Canadian Medical Journal. Some of the doctors Jim has spoken with have said to him they look for arteries as the problem — not the veins.
“Unbelievable, that’s how I am feeling now, two months after the procedure. The doctors there knew, because I had studied this for so long, where to look. And they listened to me.”
Jim says the surgery was apparently a first at Chong Hua Hospital and he did have to sign off on it beforehand.
“But I knew, and was shown by the vascular surgeon and the MRIs, that the vein was crushed. I knew it was right.”
Today, Jim has been walking often — even to the top of Horth Hill. He is back out golfing again and admits he still gets tired.
“I’m allowing myself a year to build my strength back up,” he says, adding he has not had a return of the headaches that plagued him for years — and has not taken any drugs for pain.
He feels the blockages in his veins were misdiagnosed for years. It was only because he could afford it that he was able to try different surgeries outside of this country.
“Doctors don’t always have the right answers. You have to work hard to find out what the problem is, and if a treatment isn’t helping you, you might have to look outside of our health care network.”
He lavishes praise on his family doctors for being good at what they do but says people shouldn’t have to wait so long for the correct diagnosis and treatment and calls Canada’s health care system dysfunctional as a result.
“People shouldn’t have to put up with the long waits between specialists.”