Nunavut woman who flew to N.W.T. for surgery turned away due to hospital's equipment issues

Last week, Brenda Ongahak travelled from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to Yellowknife for knee surgery — only to be told the hospital would be delaying her procedure due to faulty equipment.

Stanton Territorial Hospital suspended 'small number' of elective surgeries last week

Brenda Ongahak, left, and her daughter Sidney Ongahak on the flight to Yellowknife, where Brenda was scheduled to have a long-awaited knee surgery last week. (Submitted by Brenda Ongahak)

Brenda Ongahak has been waiting for about a year to get surgery on her knee. 

Last week, she travelled from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to Yellowknife to get that surgery done — only to be told on the day of the procedure that the hospital would be delaying her surgery due to faulty equipment.

The hospital started suspending some elective surgeries on Thursday, said David Maguire, spokesperson for the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority.

On Friday night, the health authority sent a news release saying Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife had suspended or cancelled a "small number" of those surgeries after sterilization equipment malfunctioned at the hospital. Maguire confirmed in an email Tuesday that 31 surgeries were cancelled through July 23 to 31, and there's no timeline in place for when the equipment will be fixed. 

"We continue to evaluate each surgery scheduled and are cancelling elective surgeries that can be rescheduled at a later date," he said, adding that emergency surgeries will go ahead.​

The health authority says the sterilization equipment uses steam and heat to clean medical instruments and supplies. Last week, staff noticed the equipment was leaving moisture in the trays the items are sterilized in. That prevents the instruments from being stored for use again, Maguire explained.

Pain in the knee

Ongahak said she arrived in the Northwest Territories last Tuesday, and went for her pre-operation appointment the next day. On Thursday morning she was in the hospital for her surgery and everything seemed good to go.

"[The doctor] said I was ready to go into surgery once he was done with the other patient … and came back telling me that they have to reschedule me," she said.

Ongahak has arthritis in her right knee and has injured it in the past.

This has made it difficult to take part in the activities she used to love, such as going for walks, volunteering at the recreational complex, and playing with her niece and nephew's children.

Travelling from Nunavut amid a pandemic requires some forethought, especially when you have five children ranging in age from 15 to 25. 

She says it can be difficult, but she was able to get help from other family members.

Ongahak in Yellowknife, before heading off to the surgery she says she waited about a year to get. (Submitted by Brenda Ongahak)

Recurring sterilization equipment problems

Last October, CBC News learned that water leaks and mould have plagued the new hospital, and that staff repeatedly expressed concerns that vulnerable patients weren't protected from risks caused by cleaning up those problems. 

And this is not the first time the hospital has had issues with its sterilization equipment.

In 2011, at least 290 surgeries were cancelled or postponed as a precaution after the hospital's sterilization equipment broke down twice that year, necessitating more than $100,000 in repairs.

In 2017, elective surgeries at Stanton were cancelled when its main sterilizing machine failed.

Last year, surgeries and other medical procedures at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife were cancelled after the hospital's CT scanner and sterilizing equipment broke down

Stanton Territorial Hospital noticed that its sterilization equipment was malfunctioning on Wednesday. As a result, some elective surgeries are postponed or cancelled, the N.W.T. Health and Social Services Authority says. (Katherine Barton/CBC)

The health authority's spokesperson Maguire could not say if the current issues with the sterilization equipment are related to those in the past, saying the authority has not determined the cause in this instance. 

"When the new hospital was built an entirely new medical device reprocessing unit was built and all of the sterilizers are new," he said. 

"This is a new issue that needs to be solved as these are new systems in the new hospital."

Maguire said environmental factors can also affect the quality of steam in the sterilizers, including increased chlorine in the system due to high rainfall or turbidity (cloudy water), increased humidity, and high water levels — an occurrence that's been well documented in Yellowknife this summer.

He said the authority has put together a team that's meeting twice daily to manage the situation and work toward a solution.

'I do trust them'

Ongahak says that, overall, she is grateful that the hospital found out about the sterilization equipment issues before going through with her surgery

"I do trust them because I know they should be checking their machines regularly and making sure everything is working," she said.

"I'm kind of thankful, but then I'm [also] not, because I didn't have the knee surgery," she added. "I guess safety first, which is good."

But Ongahak said she has kept her bag mostly packed in case another surgery date comes along soon.


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