When Rachael Armstrong learned her son’s long-awaited heart surgery was being postponed due to low-staffing in October, she was comforted that the decision had likely saved another child’s life.
Her son Jackson has been waiting for an aortic valve replacement to relieve a blockage in his heart since May. It will be the nine-year-old’s 11th surgery since being born with several holes in his heart.
But the surgery rescheduled for Nov. 9 never happened either.
Armstrong says the Kamloops-based family has been stranded in Vancouver for four weeks awaiting news of a new date and hoping Jackson’s condition doesn’t deteriorate before he can have the essential operation.
“We were an hour away from the hospital for his pre-surgery clinical tests when they phoned to say they were cancelling,” said Armstrong in an interview with The Tyee. “I was vibrating, I was just so upset and frustrated.”
Insufficient staffing and skyrocketing cases of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, RSV and the flu among children have caused mass surgery cancellations for children like Jackson and adults across B.C.
The Ministry of Health won’t confirm how many surgeries and patients have been affected so far.
Cardiac surgeries cut says BCCH internal email
On Tuesday, CTV reported BC Children’s Hospital had opened an overflow emergency unit for low-acuity patients as wait times ballooned close to two hours on Tuesday.
An internal email shared with The Tyee this week also shows BCCH has reduced the elective cardiac operating room schedule from four to three days per week until the end of December.
This is to free up staffed pediatric intensive care units for children who require emergency hospital care.
“This obviously makes assumptions about bed demand for respiratory patients and the stability of PICU staffing, both of which remain unpredictable,” reads the email from a senior hospital employee. “We will revisit this strategy in mid-December.”
BCCH pediatric cardiac surgeon Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi told media at a BC Green Party press conference last week he has performed very few non-emergency surgeries in the last weeks.
“It's been routine that my cases have been cancelled over the past several weeks,” he said.
A frustrating wait since May
Jackson’s doctors in Kamloops recommended the surgery to insert his aortic valve in May due to a severe blockage. Armstrong was told it would most likely happen in July when Jackson was off school and had more time to recover.
But the summer came and went, and there was still no date. After following up multiple times and preparing for one unconfirmed date, Jackson’s surgery was officially set for Oct. 12.
“I felt at least a bit relieved,” Armstrong said, noting the multiple postponements have added a whole new layer to the stress of waiting for a life-saving surgery.
But it was bumped to Nov. 9 the night before he was set to go under, and then postponed indefinitely when they returned three weeks later. The hospital couldn’t give them a new date.
Armstrong insisted she and Jackson stay near Vancouver to be seen weekly by his surgeon who can monitor his condition.
They began isolating in an Abbotsford hotel with Armstrong’s partner, who is staying there for work, to ensure Jackson didn’t get sick before his surgery.
But Jackson had a minor cough and tested positive for Croup early last week. His surgical team said they couldn’t operate until four weeks after his positive test, despite the fast he has since recovered and is otherwise healthy.
“With the way things are going, it will be a challenge making sure Jackson doesn’t get sick again,” Armstrong said, noting he is at high risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19. She wants to see mandatory masks back in schools to keep children from contracting illnesses.
While they wait, Armstrong has contacted multiple MLAs, health authorities, hospital administrators, the patient quality care office and the offices of Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier David Eby. None of them have replied.
Armstrong also asked BCCH about the possibility of having Jackson’s care transferred to another province so it could be performed sooner. That request was denied.
“Where are they trying to fix this problem?” said Armstrong, “I just want to know what is going to be done to solve it.”
‘Scariest part of the frontlines’
Armstrong is now stuck choosing between returning to Kamloops to regroup before their new surgery date on Dec. 14, or waiting it out in Abbotsford knowing the new date could be cancelled anyways.
She fears deeply for her son and for other children who are slipping through the cracks as the health-care system collapses and for the staff who are being asked to work under more and more distressing conditions.
“Our surgeons are on the scariest part of the frontline here, having to meet with families day after day to explain to them why the hospital is unable to proceed with their surgeries and do their best to keep us calm,” she wrote in a text message to The Tyee.
“I am sure receiving the wrath from each family on a daily basis is leaving them feeling helpless with what they are able to offer to us.”