B.C. Children's Hospital has temporarily closed two of its eight operating rooms and is postponing dozens of kids' elective surgeries due to a shortage of nursing staff.

The ORs were closed May 2, and at least 56 surgeries have been postponed so far, said Linda Lemke, chief operating officer for the hospital.

"My heart goes out to families who are waiting on these lists," she said.

"We are doing everything we can to rectify this problem, but of course, this is stressful for families."

It's not clear when there will be enough trained pediatric nurses at the hospital to reopen the ORs, and the hospital is reassessing week to week, Lemke said.

She stressed that no emergency or very urgent cases would be impacted by the closures.

Surgical OR

In any operating room, nurses require a specialized set of skills — and pediatric surgery is even more specialized, making it difficult to recruit and train new staff, says B.C. Children's Hospital's chief operating officer. (Shutterstock)

'Very big pickle'

The shortage of nurses in B.C. is nothing new, and the hospital and union paint different pictures of how avoidable this particular problem was.

Lemke said the shortage came on quickly at B.C. Children's, due to a number of changes in the small, specialized team that works in the pediatric ORs: staff got sick, a couple of people quit, husbands were transferred to other locations, and one person retired, she said.

But the B.C. Nurses' Union said the problem isn't a few changes in people's lives — but chronic understaffing by the Provincial Health Services Authority, which runs the hospital.

"While the PHSA appears to be presenting the fact that this is a problem that developed overnight, it clearly is not," said union president Gayle Duteil.

"Unfortunately, PHSA has routinely run just the bare minimum of staffing, and now they're in a very big pickle."

Specialized training required

The hospital is scrambling to hire more OR nurses, but even with positions available it takes time to train staff, Lemke said.

"We're dealing with kids, our instruments are smaller and our procedures are run a little differently because we have wee ones in our operating rooms."

"We need extra training, to manage that very, very specialized care."

Ten nurses are currently in the hospital's training program, and they are also trying to recruit trained staff, she said.

The union calls that a good step, but says there should be two or three times that many nurses being trained, to avoid future shortages.

'Elective' cases postponed

Families whose children's surgeries are postponed started getting phone calls during the last week of April.

Many are being pushed back "just a short number of weeks," Lemke said. She did not know what the longest postponement is.

All the postponed surgeries are "elective," meaning that while they're medically necessary, they are less time-sensitive.

The decisions are being made by the physicians and hospital leadership, Lemke said. Some examples include tonsils, ear tubes, mole removal and some dental surgeries — but it depends on the case, she said.

"We are doing everything to make sure that children are treated very quickly in a new surgical date," she said.

They're trying to make sure no child is postponed twice.