Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. woman wonders whether surgery delay contributed to husband's death

Jean Colbourne will always wonder if her husband would have lived if COVID-19 restrictions hadn't delayed his heart surgery. It's a question no one can answer.

Bob Colbourne's condition deteriorated after his open heart surgery was postponed 5 months

Jean and Bob Colbourne were married for 45 years. They lived in Point Leamington, on Newfoundland's northeast coast. (CBC/submitted by Jean Colbourne)

Jean Colbourne will always wonder if her husband would have lived if COVID-19 hadn't delayed his heart surgery.

It's a question no one can answer, and that uncertainty adds to her grief.

"We lost him. I lost my husband. It's heartbreaking," said Colbourne.

Bob Colbourne, 64, appeared to be healthy and active in 2019 when doctors placed him on a wait list for elective surgery. He was told he needed valve replacement and a bypass.

He was eventually scheduled for open heart surgery in May — but public health rules changed that plan.

People are losing their lives because of this delay.- Deanna Colbourne Lumax

Last winter, his was one of the thousands of surgeries cancelled to make room in hospitals for an expected wave of COVID-19 cases.

As Colbourne waited to be rebooked, his condition deteriorated. By the end of the summer, he was fighting fatigue and indigestion and was having trouble breathing. 

His wife, Jean Colbourne, says it got so bad that the once-active man stopped moving.

"When we got to the end of September, his symptoms were getting worse to the point that one day he was just sitting on the couch," she said

Bob Colbourne holds his first great-grandson, Abel, in January. (Submitted by Jean Colbourne)

She convinced him to make the five-hour drive from their home in Point Leamington, on Newfoundland's northeast coast. In the Health Sciences Centre's emergency room, Colbourne was admitted to hospital and his surgery was scheduled for Oct. 6.

It didn't go as planned. Surgeons found more blockages, and his heart stopped. He was revived, and efforts to keep him alive continued for two days.

"Basically we were told we could visit and we had some hard decisions to make," she said, fighting back tears.

"Four o'clock that day, we let him go."

He died after his open-heart surgery was delayed almost five months. Now his wife and daughter, Deanna Colbourne Lumax, are calling for change. They say elective heart surgeries, despite their non-emergent status, shouldn't be sidelined or pushed back.

Deanna Colbourne Lumax says elective heart surgeries shouldn't be sidelined. (CBC)

"I think that this is an essential surgery," Lumax said.

"There shouldn't have been an impact to the cardiac surgeries over that period of time, especially when you consider the low number of [COVID] cases that were in Newfoundland.

"People are losing their lives because of this delay."

The family vouched for the medical care Bob Colbourne received in St. John's. But they also say they were warned about a shortage of heart surgeons in the province, and Lumax says believes their scant number — not only pandemic-related restrictions — contributed to her father's outcome.

"Because of the delay, his heart had hardened," she said.

Eastern Health's response

CBC requested an interview with Eastern Health officials after speaking with the family, and received a statement in response.

"Eastern Health offers sincere condolences to this family," the statement reads.

The health authority said while it can't comment on Bob Colbourne's case due to privacy laws, there are currently 183 patients on the wait list for heart surgery, including both inpatients and outpatients.

"Like other health-care services, cardiac surgery wait times have been impacted by COVID-19. Eastern Health is working diligently to address waitlists, to expand capacity and to address the backlog while adhering to COVID-19 public health guidelines," it said.

"Patients can be reassured that urgent cardiac surgeries continue to be performed during the pandemic, while non-urgent cardiac surgeries have been gradually increasing. Surgeries are scheduled based on priority and wait times vary depending on patient urgency. 

"Our clinical teams regularly review patient lists and prioritize patients for cardiac surgery. If there are changes in a patient's condition, they should follow up with the primary health care provider."

In early November, Eastern Health said there are three cardiac surgeons currently working in St. John's, with a fourth one expected in December.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Mark Quinn

CBC News

Mark Quinn is a videojournalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.