Some Vancouver Island residents struggle waiting for delayed surgeries

A Vancouver Island woman said she is worried about losing her independence and quality of life while waiting for a surgery postponed due to concerns over COVID-19.

Jackie, who asked we not use her real name, is waiting for a lumbar discectomy, which according to Healthlink BC, is surgery to remove low back herniated disc material pressing on a nerve root or the spinal cord.

“It’s just an implant they put in the disc. Literally it’s a 45-minute procedure, in and out the same day.”

She said she had surgery done 15 years ago and was told at the time it would need to be redone in 10 – 15 years. She is concerned about her condition deteriorating while she waits.

“I’m going to be in a wheelchair — that’s what happened last time,” she said.

One of her biggest worries is she will need to begin taking strong prescription pain medication again.

“The only thing that will take the pain away, unfortunately, is the opiates. I became addicted. Even after my back was repaired, I still secretly used pills,” said Jackie, who is a healthcare worker, but is unable to work because of the pain.

“Normally I would have been able to get in to see a neurosurgeon within six to eight weeks and now they’re saying it’s going to be six to eight months before I even get to see the surgeon,” she said. “And then it’s going to be 24 to 28 months before I’m able to have to surgery.”

She said her name is on a waiting list for a surgeon in Nanaimo, but she has not been given a date. Jackie and her husband contacted a private clinic in Victoria, but were told it was against the law for the clinic to perform a surgery already being provided by the Canadian medical system.

“We could afford to pay for the surgery. It’s $50,000 if we were to have it done – U.S. But I can’t get across because of COVID. They’re not going to let me get it done. I don’t even have that option here,” said Jackie.

Approximately 4,000 surgeries were postponed because of COVID-19 concerns, according to Dr. William Orrom, executive medical director of surgery and ambulatory care for Island Health.

“There should be no on waiting indefinitely. We’ve either completed surgery on those 4,000 patients or they have been scheduled,” said Orrom, who added around 85 to 100 per cent have been completed. He did not have a number for how many people were still waiting.

Gwen Tyas said her partner’s heart surgery in Victoria was cancelled in May and was not given a timeframe for when it could be rescheduled.

“He’s talked to his doctors and specialists and they’ve said he is in the cue kind of thing, but no indication of when that might happen,” said Tyas.

Her partner had surgery in February, but it did not fix the problem, so the doctors wanted him to come back for another attempt.

“If he has another heart attack that’s probably it,” she said.

Orrom said the decision to postpone surgeries was made at a time when there was a lot of uncertainty regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies and risks of surgery patients being exposed to the novel coronavirus.

“There are patients that do have a relatively urgent need for surgery, but there is such a higher risk that we had to postpone them,” he said.

Island Health has obtained new sources for PPE and that situation is now “reasonable,” according to Orrom. He added the province’s new surgical renewal plan will substantially increase surgery capacity for hospitals. For a time, he said, Island Health hospitals were at 60 per cent volume, but that number has since climbed back to around 100 per cent.

Jackie said she feels like she is running out of options. She and her husband have considered travelling to Alberta, or even as far away as India to get her surgery done. If she does not find another option, she said she will need to take pain medication for as long as two years.

“Here we are waging this war with drug overdoses in Vancouver – not just Vancouver, all over Canada, this huge opioid crisis, and yet they’re handing them out like candy,” she said.

Another wave of COVID-19 is inevitable, according to Orrom, but he said the health region is prepared.

“We have contingency plans to be nimble in that regard, so we can react to these increases just a little quicker than the last time even,” he said.

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