Nova Scotia

N.S. woman says she could go blind because of COVID-19 surgery restrictions

A Nova Scotia woman whose eyesight is rapidly deteriorating says the surgery she needs to save her from blindness has been cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

'I just think that clinical judgment should be exercised in certain cases,' says Robin McGee

Robin McGee has been a patient advocate since she first went through cancer treatment in 2010. (Submitted by Robin McGee)

Robin McGee knows how to stay calm in the face of uncertainty.

The Port Williams, N.S., woman attributes her resiliency, in part, to her training and experience as a clinical psychologist, but she's also had a lot of personal practice.

McGee has been battling cancer off and on for the past 10 years. The last time McGee was treated with chemotherapy, in 2017, she experienced a rare side effect that afflicted her with cataracts. Without intervention, she said she has about six months until she'll be legally blind, and maybe a year before she'll be "stone blind."

On March 17, her doctor called to tell her the cancer was likely back, and potentially terminal. That's the same day the Nova Scotia Health Authority issued a directive to clinicians to cancel all non-urgent and elective procedures — McGee was scheduled for cataract surgery on March 25.

Hoped to be an exception

"I hoped and prayed I might be considered an exception, but when they called they said, 'Sorry.' They wish it was different, but it can't be different. It's a public health order," McGee said.

The health authority did not address McGee's case specifically, but said in a statement "the vast majority of cataract surgeries can be delayed by eight or more weeks, without compromising the final visual recovery."

"NSHA's Department of Ophthalmology, in accordance with recommendations from NSHA and from our national organization, is proceeding with urgent or emergency eye surgeries, but not elective procedures, during this pandemic," the statement said.

McGee was in remission, but learned last month her cancer had come back. She expects to start chemotherapy again in about six weeks. (Submitted by Robin McGee)

"We are performing surgeries that, if delayed by up to eight weeks, would lead to a worse outcome. Examples of this kind of ocular procedures would be globe perforations, retinal detachments, certain types of intraocular infections, certain types of intraocular bleeding, glaucoma surgery in high-risk conditions, ocular or periocular malignancies, among others."

McGee said those generalizations don't apply to her, because her cataracts are progressing more quickly than most. Additionally, she said doctors have told her it would be "considerably less safe" to have the surgery while undergoing chemotherapy, which she expects to start in about six weeks.

"I have a limited window to get the cataract surgery safely and I can't get it in that window because of the shutdown," McGee said.

"The doctors who have spoken to me about it have been very kind, they've been very apologetic, but there really is no option. There's no exception, the service is closed indefinitely and that's that."

Advocating for leniency

McGee disagrees with the health authority's position and she'd like the province to provide more leeway for unique situations like hers.

McGee is an experienced patient advocate. She successfully lobbied for changes to Nova Scotia's chemotherapy treatment options after first becoming a patient 10 years ago. She wrote a book about the experience and won a Governor General's award for the work.

In 2016, Gov. Gen. David Johnston awards McGee with the Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers for her advocacy work. (Master Cpl. Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall)

"I've been advocating for other people for a long, long time and now I find myself ridiculously back in the same situation of needing help and needing advocacy myself," she said.

McGee said she understands the need for some restrictions, and she wouldn't expect health officials to "reopen the floodgates."

"I just think that clinical judgment should be exercised in certain cases ... I just really want to encourage the province to allow clinicians to make some judicious decisions on behalf of people who are in extremis."