British Columbia

Green Party's interim leader among hundreds in B.C. whose surgeries have been postponed

The Green Party of Canada's interim leader is among more than 800 patients in B.C. who have had their surgeries postponed this month.

Amita Kuttner's surgery cancelled at last minute, one of almost 800 procedures put off due to staff shortages

Green Party of Canada interim leader Amita Kuttner pictured preparing for abdominal surgery at University of B.C. Hospital on Wednesday, before the operation was suddenly postponed due to staffing shortages. (Amita Kuttner)

The Green Party of Canada's interim leader is among more than 800 patients in B.C. who have had their surgeries postponed this month.

Amita Kuttner, who has led the party since Annamie Paul's resignation last November, has waited since August for abdominal surgery.

On Wednesday, they underwent blood tests, met anesthesiologists, had an intravenous line prepared, signed consent forms and were prepared to enter an operating room at the University of B.C. Hospital in Vancouver — only to be told they couldn't proceed.

"My surgeon came over and said, 'We're so, so sorry but due to time and staff shortages we can't operate today,'" Kuttner told CBC News.

"I know people have what I consider much more urgent problems than me, but it's just a brutal physical and psychological experience to go through that."

Kuttner's surgery was considered "non-urgent," and they had been on a waitlist since last August.

But they said their condition caused significant, ongoing pain and bleeding and the surgery was considered medically necessary.

"Something clearly happened that made this [postponement] necessary, and if it's saving someone's life I'm willing to do it," Kuttner said. 

Green Party interim leader Amita Kuttner speaks to the media in Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Health Minister Adrian Dix said on Tuesday that 791 surgeries were postponed in B.C. over the period of Jan. 9-15, saying staff shortages largely due to COVID-19 were to blame.

In the Vancouver Coastal Health region, 119 surgeries were postponed in that period — a large proportion of the 154 postponements reported in the past month "due to a reduction in operating rooms," the authority said in a release.

"Health-care workers have been on the front lines of care throughout the pandemic now for two years and are experiencing exhaustion and the same illness as the rest of the population," it added.

'Mortality impact'

Since last September, B.C.'s health authorities had postponed 5,101 surgeries deemed "non-urgent scheduled" operations, Dix said on Tuesday.

He said postponing surgeries is needed to sustain the health-care system.

"It is obviously significant, particularly for those whose surgeries have been postponed," Dix said.

"Our goal is to have our health-care system operating at 100 per cent everywhere, in every facet, as soon as possible — as we've demonstrated with surgeries in the past."

The strain on B.C.'s hospitals from the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus is growing, with 95 per cent of beds currently occupied. Health experts warn the impact of the variant will be felt for months. 

B.C. health officials reported 891 people in hospital with COVID-19 on Thursday, including 119 in intensive care. 

As a result, the province announced more postponed surgeries, reduced ambulatory care services, and health-care staff redeployed to emergency wards in some regions.

The University of B.C. Hospital, where Green Party of Canada leader Amita Kuttner had surgery postponed because of staffing shortages on Wednesday. (Vancouver Coastal Health)

But cancelling "non-urgent scheduled" surgeries could have tragic long-term effects, said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, clinical associate professor in the University of B.C.'s Faculty of Medicine.

"Because of the strain that's going on right now, having cancer surgery delayed, having neurosurgery delayed is going to cause mortality impact," he told CBC News on Wednesday.

"It doesn't give me a lot of solace."

Kuttner said their experience is an example of how long-term "underfunding" of the country's medical system has affected care.

"It's terrifying that that many people have had their surgeries cancelled," they said.

"Yes, the pandemic is creating staff shortage problems, but there are systemic issues with always pushing the system to the brink even before the pandemic … We have been treating our health-care system like something you can just keep at max and overloaded."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David P. Ball

@davidpball

David P. Ball is a CBC News reporter in Vancouver. Send story tips or ideas to david.ball@cbc.ca, or find him on Twitter @davidpball.

With files from Justin McElroy

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