Day-of-surgery cancellations 'heartless,' says Manitoban turned away after 2-year wait

Rick Barker, 72, was moments away from being wheeled into a hospital operating room last month when his knee surgery was suddenly cancelled. Same-day cancellations continue to happen routinely as the health-care system struggles to chip away at a ballooning backlog of surgeries.

As pandemic restrictions fall thousands of lives remain 'on hold' waiting for surgeries

Carmen Nedohin, left, and her husband Rick Barker are hoping Rick will soon get the surgery he needs. (Submitted by Carmen Nedohin)

Rick Barker and wife Carmen Nedohin steered clear of crowds and family to reduce COVID-19 exposure risks in the weeks leading up to his knee surgery date, but it ended up being cancelled twice last month — including once as he waited in a hospital bed to be wheeled into an operating room.

"To have the rug pulled out from under you … this is an experience I've never gone through before," said Barker, 72. "It was just a real sense of of exhaustion and depression."

Like many others during the pandemic, Barker had the unfortunate experience of being turned away at the 11th hour due to a shortage of hospital beds.

He has been waiting to get hip- and knee-replacement surgeries for about two years. His knee surgery had been scheduled for Feb. 3 but that was postponed to Feb. 23.

That morning Rick had arrived at the hospital early. Nurses rigged him up with intravenous fluids and shaved his knee at the site of incision.

We're going to go back into COVID lockdown again in a sense because we are praying and hoping that we may get a call from a surgeon's office.- Carmen Nedohin, whose husband, Rick Barker, awaits surgery


Five hours later, he and seven other surgery patients had surgeries cancelled with no notice because of a shortage of post-operative beds for them, Nedohin says.

"When you get that many people that are turned away it makes you wonder: Did they not know before 7 a.m. that there weren't going to be any post-op beds?" she said. "It just doesn't make any sense."

Since a slate of appointees and targets were announced for Manitoba's surgical backlog task force last fall, the number of people waiting has worsened significantly: There are 161,000 backlogged surgeries, diagnostic tests and other procedures as of last month, an increase of about 16,000 since November, according to Doctors Manitoba.

The physician advocacy organization's latest estimates peg the pandemic backlog for hip and knee surgeries at more than 2,000 as of December. That does not include pre-pandemic wait lists.

As Omicron spread rapidly though Manitoba In December and January, 341 surgeries had to be postponed the same day they were scheduled to occur at Winnipeg hospitals, not including Misericordia Health Centre, according to Shared Health.

Those cancellations occurred for a variety of reasons including a lack of beds for recovering surgery patients, unexpected staffing shortages due to illness, more pressing emergency surgeries and other challenges, according to Shared Health, which co-ordinates health-care delivery in the province.

Waiting more than 2 years

While nearly all pandemic health protections and restrictions expire this month, Nedohin says the couple's lives remain "on hold."

"When you're thinking about surgery, you're building up this anxiety and emotions and trying to deal with it all," Nedohin told Information Radio host Marcy Markusa.

"We're going to go back into COVID lockdown again in a sense because we are praying and hoping that we may get a call from a surgeon's office."

Host Marcy Markusa speaks with Carmen Nedohin to find out how this type of backlog is affecting people waiting for a procedure.

Longtime seniors' advocate and retired nurse Trish Rawsthorne says cancellations add to the existing stress of patients needing hip and knee replacement, many of whom are seniors.

"The human toll, the deconditioning, making health care worse for people who are already suffering … you're housebound," she said. "There's isolation, there's the mental-health issues — all of those come into play and we're not doing anyone any good service without moving on this much quicker than we could have been." 

In recent months the task force has said Maples clinic will help address some of the backlog of women's health procedures, and the province has also suggested it will send some spinal surgery patients to North Dakota.

Rawsthorne questions why Manitoba has not better utilized capacity for hip and knee surgeries locally at private clinics to chip away at the backlog. 

"I think we need to really put a little bee into the bonnet of whomever can get this going and utilize unique and different methods to relieve the suffering, anxiety, and give people hope again," she said.

'It's really heartless'

Barker hopes for the same. He doesn't fault health-care staff. It's his trust in the system that's been rattled.

"I think it all resides with government," he said. "I know COVID is throwing a wrench into everything, but … you figure out a way to work around it in order to eliminate any disruptions that might arise. So, I don't think they're doing a very good job of it."

On Wednesday, Barker took a call from his surgeon's office notifying him that they're going to try to fit him in this month. They also informed him surgeries his doctor had scheduled for Wednesday were cancelled at short notice, Barker said.

That filled him with mixed feelings.

"You think to yourself, my God, I've got to go through this thing all over again," he said

"You run through that scenario: You see yourself on that gurney, you see the IV and you're waiting and you're waiting, thinking all the time, is this really going to happen or not?

"It's really heartless, to say the least, the way people are being treated."


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Susie Erjavec Parker