Point of View: Patience, please — waiting for cancer surgery during a pandemic

Five days after the Montreal General Hospital cancelled Taionrén:hote Dan David's bowel cancer surgery, he had questions that needed answers: "Why?" and "What next?"

It was all straightforward until COVID-19 became more than someone else's problem — it became mine

'They've cancelled my surgery,' says freelance writer Dan David. 'I deserve to know what's happening. It is my life, after all. But I'm not angry. I could be but I choose to understand instead.' (Submitted by Taionrén:hote Dan David)

Five days after the Montreal General Hospital cancelled my surgery, I had questions that needed answers: "Why?" and "What next?"

I'm a cancer patient. Last year, I beat throat cancer. This year, about a month ago, I found out I have bowel cancer and need an operation. The sooner, the better.

We found it early, so there's a good chance for a full recovery. The longer we leave things, the slimmer are my chances of coming out of this without complications.

It was all straightforward until COVID-19 became more than someone else's problem. It became mine.

Sometime in the two weeks after my surgery date was set, everything changed for everybody heading for a Montreal hospital.

The person who gave me the bad news about my postponed operation had the same news for everyone: all surgeries had been cancelled at the Montreal General.

The reason? The novel coronavirus epidemic. That was it. No further explanation about what this meant for me, when my surgery might happen, or how putting it off would affect my life.

A friend suggested I must be angry or at least, disappointed. I told her I couldn't be — as a recovering cancer patient. I've already shaken my fists at the skies, done the "why me?", the "why didn't they find it sooner, and why not operate instead of putting me through seven weeks of hell with chemo and radiation?"

But I'm alive today and grateful because of the decisions my doctors made last year.

Now they've cancelled my surgery. Yes, I'm a patient. I deserve to know what's happening. It is my life, after all. But I'm not angry. I could be but I choose to understand instead.

I follow the news. I know that Montreal is the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Quebec. I know this province has more COVID-19 cases than anywhere else in Canada.

I assumed the hospital must be scrambling to adjust to this situation. I guessed that hospitals had shifted from business as usual to an emergency footing.

But I didn't know what this meant for my cancer surgery. If it was delayed, I needed to know until when — and how that delay might affect my recovery.

Who must go now, who can wait?

Getting answers wasn't easy. I had an app on my mobile phone that was supposed to keep me in constant contact with my surgeon. I posted my questions but I didn't get a reply.

After a few days, I phoned all the numbers the Montreal General and Royal Victoria hospitals had given me. No one answered at either place – my calls didn't even go to voicemail.

Then I decided to send an email to a general address, provided my file number, described my situation and asked that someone forward it to my surgeon.

I've described this in detail because I believe it's important for you to understand a couple of things. First, the stress on patients.

It's never easy to face cancer. The word "cancer" is scary as hell. It's no longer a death sentence, but the word still means a lot of stress, anxiety and pain. My surgery should be fairly routine under normal circumstances, but things aren't normal anymore.

I'm also aware that all kinds of patients head to hospitals for all kinds of reasons — some for life-saving surgeries and others for everything from broken bones to giving birth. No matter the reason why we enter the system, we're all used to getting some of the best health care in the world.

When we don't get that level of health care, we get anxious, disappointed, and even angry. It must be particularly difficult and stressful for the parents of children and for those caring for the very old to understand or accept.

On the other hand, as my surgeon explained (and yes, he phoned to explain), entire hospitals have had to shift everything they do and how they do it to deal with an expected flood of new COVID-19 patients.

Doctors, he explained, are reviewing their patients' conditions, identifying those who need immediate attention, separating those who might be able to wait awhile.

These lists of patients and priorities are submitted to hospital committees. These committees are looking at their available resources, reviewing their day-to-day operations and making changes to everything they do in order to handle the COVID-19 crisis.

These committees also review each list of patients submitted by doctors. They decide whether someone, like me, gets the recommended procedure as soon as possible or gets put on a waiting list.

My surgeon apologized. I tried to reassure him that I understood, that I wasn't worried. I'm not sure either of us completely believed the other.

I know it must be a stressful time for him and everyone he works with at the hospital. I assume that some, maybe most, are having to make life and death decisions that they never thought probable or possible in Canada before.

But here we are. This is our new reality.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dan David has had his surgery and is now home and recovering in Kanesatake. 


Taionrén:hote Dan David

Mohawk writer, veteran journalist

Tahieròn:iohte Dan David is an award-winning journalist based in Kanehsatake Mohawk territory near Oka, Que. Some journalists call him the "grandfather of APTN News."

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