Nfld. & Labrador

While N.L. starts tackling its surgery backlog, a Summerford man fears he won't make it

Ernest Barnes, 71, says he has no choice but to wait but he's not happy about it: "I'm going to the funeral home."

Thousands of appointments and surgeries across the province delayed due to pandemic

Ernest Barnes, who is known for marking highway potholes with orange spray paint, is waiting for surgery. File photo. (David Boyd)

As Newfoundland and Labrador health authorities start working through a backlog of pandemic-delayed surgeries, one 71-year-old Summerford man who needs a critical procedure says he thinks he's going to die waiting.

Ernest Barnes, who lives on New World Island off Newfoundland's central coast, is waiting for surgery on a heart valve and blockages in St. John's.

"I'm going to the funeral home. That's all I can say. I know where I'm going to end up if I don't soon get in and get this surgery done," said Barnes.

Barnes is just one of many left waiting because of a massive backlog of cancelled appointments and surgeries at hospitals across the province. 

Between March 16 and April 29, about 4,000 fewer surgeries happened at Eastern Health, compared with the same period in 2019. About 11,500 in-person specialist appointments were cancelled during the same time. 

Some high-priority procedures have resumed. But Barnes still hasn't heard when his surgery will be, even though he's contacted his doctor about how sick he's feeling.

Two weeks ago, he said, he was taken to Twillingate by ambulance. Barnes said he still has pains in his chest.

"I don't think I'm getting the right oxygen," he said.

This whole pandemic era has been incredibly disruptive​​​.- Dr. Martin Vogel

Barnes said he was told by his doctor the wait for surgery would be two to four months, but he's been waiting for nearly six.

Barnes says his health is hurting his ability to do everyday things, like climb stairs, and it's worrying his wife.

"I spend 85 or 90 per cent of my time in the bed, too tired to get out of bed," said Barnes.

Dr. Martin Vogel, Central Health's interim vice-president of medical services, said people who feel they won't make it should see their primary-care provider. And if they feel their condition is urgent, they should go to the emergency room.

"Don't sit at home waiting to get worse," said Vogel.

Since the pandemic began, 713 fewer surgeries have happened at Central Health than in the same period the year before, a 73 per cent decrease. Almost 3,000 in-hospital specialist appointments have been cancelled, which is not counting ones that happen outside the hospital. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Barnes said he needs heart surgery before he can have other surgeries to repair hernias and remove cataracts.

He hopes to have those surgeries in Gander, which is closer to home and in Central Health's jurisdiction. 

But there's a backlog there, too.

Between March 16 and April 29, 713 fewer surgeries were done at Central Health, a 73 per cent decrease compared with 2019. Almost 3,000 in-hospital specialist appointments have been cancelled, not counting ones that happen in offices outside the hospital. There have been 123,000 fewer laboratory tests, a 64 per cent decrease, and more than 11,000 fewer medical imaging appointments, a 72 per cent decrease.

No strategy for backlog, yet

Vogel says the backlog of appointments and procedures at Central Health is on top of an already significant wait list.

"This whole pandemic era has been incredibly disruptive," he said.

He said Central Health must resume more services before tackling the backlog.

"Only then can we start quantifying the extent of the backlog and what time frame might be needed to work through that backlog," said Vogel.

'Four-sided Rubik's cube'

He said clearing the backlog will also depend on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community, hospital and staff capacity, the amount of personal protective equipment, and the number of emergency procedures necessary.

"So it's almost like a four-sided Rubik's cube, where you're juggling those particular factors in order to make your plans," he said.

Surgeries at Western Health and Labrador-Grenfell Health have decreased by 85 per cent and 72 per cent, respectively, compared with last year.

Barnes says all he can do is wait.

"I'm not well pleased about it but there's nothing I can do, right?" said Barnes. "I just take one day at a time."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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