The nursing shortage which is delaying surgeries for sick kids at B.C. Children's Hospital will take months to fix, according to Health Minister Terry Lake.

Two of the hospital's eight operating rooms were closed May 2 due to a shortage of nurses trained to work in the pediatric ORs, CBC News reported yesterday.

The hospital said it was training new nurses and re-assessing week-to-week, but today Lake revealed a much longer timeline.

"It could be nine to 10 months before we get back to a full operating schedule at B.C. Children's because of the sub-specialty of working with very small and very complex patients," Lake said Tuesday.

More than 50 families have had scheduled surgeries postponed, whereas others are getting later dates due to the shortage.

Terry Lake May 10

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake answers questions Tuesday about the nursing shortage at B.C. Children's Hospital, which he said may last nine or 10 months. (CBC)

'Kids are in pain' and waiting

According to the hospital, only surgeries that are safe to delay are being postponed, and no emergency cases are affected.

But that still leaves children like Leanne Arnott's 12-year-old daughter in pain and waiting.

Leanne Arnott and daughter Meghan

Leanne Arnott's daughter Meghan, 12, is waiting for surgery for a complication related to Crohn's disease, but the family has been told it may be postponed due to the nursing shortage at the hospital. (Submitted)

Meghan has a severe case of Crohn's disease and spent six months in B.C. Children's Hospital last year, including a surgery to remove her colon.

Now, she's suffering from complications and needs another surgery, her mom said. She's too sick to go to school today.

"She feels like she's going to throw up, and she's in pain, and there's nothing we can do until we get her in," said Arnott, who lives in South Surrey.

Last week, Meghan was given a surgery date a month away — and a warning it might be postponed.

Kids are in pain, and kids are suffering, and they're having to suffer longer than they should have to. - Leanne Arnott, whose daughter is waiting for surgery

"It's the first week of June, but we've been told, due to these shortages, it could change," Arnott said. "If there weren't these shortages, we might have been able to get her in this week."

Arnott said the care her daughter has received from staff at B.C. Children's has been "amazing," and the family has also helped raise money for the gastrointestinal department, but she's frustrated by the situation.

"When your child is in pain or feels sick, if there's nothing you can do you feel really helpless, it's a big stress on the whole family," Arnott said.

"This isn't something she's going to die from, but ... kids are in pain, and kids are suffering, and they're having to suffer longer than they should have to."

B.C. Children's hospital

A shortage of operating room nurses has closed two of the eight ORs at B.C. Children's Hospital, forcing the hospital to postpone 'elective' children's surgeries. (UBC)

Vulnerable to burnout, tough to replace

Health Minister Terry Lake and the hospital point to a "worldwide" shortage of OR nurses as a backdrop to the current problem at B.C. Children's Hospital.

An OR nurse is a highly-trained, specialized job — in what Lake calls a "tense work environment" — so they're vulnerable to burnout and tough to replace.

"I want to thank all the nurses that have stepped up to fill the gaps," Lake said. "But we do need to address this long-term so that we don't get burnout, so we keep nurses wanting to work in the operating room environment."

In the case of B.C. Children's, the shortage came on "quite suddenly" because of a number changes among its staff, including moves and sickness, the hospital's chief operating officer Linda Lemke said Monday.

Between nurses quitting, moving, getting sick and retiring, they are down to 80 per cent staff, and closed two ORs last week.

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)

10 nurses being trained

Ten nurses are currently being trained to work in the pediatric OR, and the hospital is trying to recruit trained staff, but it's unclear when they will be fully staffed again, Lemke said.

The B.C. Nurses' Union has said the current shortage is the result of running for too long with the "bare minimum," and could have been avoided.

The union and B.C. government have a tentative agreement which, among other provisions, will provide more specialized training for OR nurses.

The agreement still needs to be ratified by the nurses themselves. That vote ends today.