A Yukon transgender man has successfully undergone chest masculinization surgery this week, the first operation of its kind to be funded by the Yukon government.
“For the first time in my life I feel comfortable in my body,” Chase Blodgett told the News via text message Thursday, a day after the double mastectomy that has given him a flat chest for the first time in his adult life.
“It has never felt more beautiful and comfortable to be in my own skin than it does at this moment.”
But getting to this point hasn’t been easy. Blodgett first applied for funding for chest surgery back in August 2014. Since then, he’s been assessed by multiple physicians in the Yukon and B.C., and has had his funding applications denied several times.
He now believes the Yukon government only agreed to fund his surgery because he filed a human rights complaint in May.
Blodgett was born with a female body, but identifies as male. He’s been taking hormones and living as a man for over a year, but until Wednesday, he still had a female chest. For months, he’s worn a medical compression vest around his chest that has given him rashes and chronic back pain.
But it’s the emotional toll that has been hardest to take. He hasn’t felt comfortable swimming or using a public shower, or even sleeping away from home.
“No camping with someone in your trailer. No getting drunk and camping on your buddy’s couch,” he said in an interview before the surgery. “Even trying on a shirt in a men’s dressing room is very vulnerable for me.”
When Blodgett first applied for funding for chest surgery in 2014, he said, the Yukon government denied his request and called the surgery cosmetic.
Blodgett disagrees with that assessment. “Right now I have a beard with a G-H cup size,” he said before the surgery. “That’s really unsafe.”
After that first refusal, Blodgett’s doctor fought back and the health department seemed to reconsider. In his human rights complaint, Blodgett wrote that his doctor received an email from the department in October 2014 saying the Yukon has no formal policy for transgender surgery, and each case is reviewed individually.
That fall, the government agreed to fund a consultation with the specialist in Victoria who would perform the surgery, but wouldn’t commit to funding the surgery until the results were in. Blodgett had the consultation in April 2016. But in May, the government rejected another funding request, saying it needed copies of the results, Blodgett wrote.
That’s when he decided to file a human rights complaint. He said the health department agreed to fund the surgery and travel just days after it received his complaint.
“If I hadn’t filed a human rights complaint, I don’t think this would have come to fruition at all,” he said.
Health and Social Services wouldn’t comment on the details of Blodgett’s case, but spokesperson Pat Living said the department is “currently reviewing … policies around sexual reassignment surgery and coverage.”
She also confirmed this is the first time the Yukon has paid for chest-contouring surgery.
Shuvo Ghosh, a developmental-behavioural pediatrician based in Montreal, said Blodgett’s story reminds him of what people in the provinces went through five to eight years ago.
But these days, he said, “we’ve finally gotten a bit of unanimity where the surgical procedures are covered by the government.”
He said provincial governments will fund chest surgery, provided people make sure their surgeries aren’t labelled as aesthetic procedures.
He also said the average time people wait for top surgery is about six months – not two years.
“Two years is really kind of a lot longer than most of our patients would ever wait,” he said.
To be fair, the Yukon faces challenges that set it apart from most of the provinces. There are no physicians here who specialize in transgender health care, meaning anyone seeking surgery has to travel to B.C. And in such a small population, it’s possible the government has little experience dealing with these requests.
But Ghosh said it’s a mistake to think these cases are few and far between.
“As much as people sometimes feel like these are isolated or very small numbers of patients, there probably are more people trying to find the resources than we think,” he said.
He suggested the three territories should work together to identify health-care professionals interested in working with transgender patients. Those physicians could then get training and work with professionals in the provinces, he said.
“It might be a lot easier if they knew they had colleagues down south,” he said.
Blodgett also pointed to the lack of training among doctors in the Yukon as an issue. “Up here, what I hope for at best is a doctor who says ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m willing to help you’,” he said.
And he’s not alone in feeling that way.
Erin Purdie is also frustrated by the hoops she’s had to jump through to get health care for her six-year-old daughter, Tristana, who transitioned from male to female earlier this year.
She wants the Yukon government to cover two or three visits a year to see a physician in Vancouver. So far, Tristana has been assessed by four doctors and psychologists, and has been given a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, meaning she feels she’s not the gender she was assigned at birth.
But the health department is now telling Purdie that she needs a fifth referral from a psychiatrist in the Yukon before it will grant her the funding.
Purdie believes that’s unnecessary, as there are no transgender specialists in the Yukon.
“It’s hard for (Tristana) to see a whole bunch of doctors,” she said. “She doesn’t want to keep saying her story over and over and over again.”
Purdie said it seems like the Yukon has no clear process for dealing with these cases.
“I sort of feel like we’re trendsetters or breaking the path,” she said. “I feel like that’s why we’re getting the runaround – because no one really knows.”
That’s a role Blodgett has taken on for nearly two years. Now, his persistence has finally paid off.
“It’s taken me so long to get to this place,” he said earlier this week. “I just want to be a person. I just want to go fishing.”
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