A grieving Toronto man, who lost his wife to cancer, is speaking out about the devastating toll of pandemic-related surgery cancellations.
“There are a lot for people dying of COVID-19 and a lot of people dying indirectly because of it,” says Andy, who asked CityNews not to use his last name out of respect for his wife’s privacy.
He says the day she died was the toughest of his life, and he re-lives it in his mind several times a day.
“I was holding her hand in the ICU as the numbers were counting down on the machine,” he recalls.
Andy’s wife had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. She was awaiting surgery last winter, as Ontario’s second COVID-19 wave continued. The 70-year-old’s operation was delayed twice because she was too weak, but once she was strong enough, a lack of ICU beds pushed it back three more times.
She spent three months at Michael Garron Hospital, before being transferred to Toronto General Hospital. Finally, after a more than four-week delay, the operation went ahead. She had a kidney, an adrenal gland and half of her liver removed, and she died shortly after.
“It was supposed to be: have the surgery, recuperate, come home and carry on,” says Andy. He says he will never know for sure if the delays contributed to his wife’s death but worries about others who are in her position.
“I am concerned about the people who will go through what we went through and might not get a bed,” he says.
With COVID-19 variants of concern dominating new infections in the third wave, a higher proportion of people infected are needing hospitalization and intensive care, with hospital stays also lasting longer, according to the province’s COVID-19 Science Table.
Ontario Health, the agency in charge of co-ordinating the provincial healthcare system, says about 600 fewer cancer surgeries are being done every week as ICUs overflow with COVID-19 patients.
“Every cancer surgery has to be done within a safe time frame,” says Dr. Chris Simpson, executive vice president of Ontario Health’s medical division. He tells CityNews that the longer surgery cancellations go on, the more he worries about patients who can no longer have their surgeries deferred.
“This is manageable if this lasts a week or two, but if it lasts a month or six weeks the problem is compounded.”
In April, Ontario’s Minister of Health instructed hospitals to ramp down elective surgeries, for the second time this pandemic.
“Our healthcare system is no longer functioning,” Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the Ontario Covid-19 Science Table, said in a news conference last week. The most recent healthcare data released by the group shows that more than 257,000 surgeries have been postponed since the start of the pandemic – with nearly 10,000 of those being added since mid-April.
It’s not only cancer surgeries being delayed; heart procedures, hip replacements, and cataract operations are among many being added to the backlog every week.
To put this into perspective, Dr. Frances Wright, a breast cancer and melanoma surgeon with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, says most hospitals in the GTA are only running two operating rooms a day when normally they’d have 12 or more.
Compounding the issue are people who should be seeking care, but aren’t, say experts.
“We are as worried about the missing patient as we are about the wave of COVID-19 patients in our hospitals,” said Brown. “While it’s true that our hospitals aren’t functioning normally, they’re still able to care for patients who need urgent help. It’s not safer to stay at home if you need help. If you need a hospital, please get to a hospital.”
Dr. Wright tells CityNews this is a crisis on many levels, with fewer people getting screened and following up on symptoms with their family doctors.
“We’ll see a shift in diagnosis,” she says. “People will be showing up with more advanced disease and will need more advanced treatment and this will play out in data for the next three to five years. It will be challenging to watch.”