Nova Scotia

'It's pretty terrifying': COVID-19 threatens N.S. woman's lung transplant

A Nova Scotia woman who needs a double lung transplant says she's trying to stay positive as COVID-19 threatens her ability to have life-saving surgery.

Karen Spencer anxiously awaits after Toronto General Hospital pauses nearly all lung transplant activities

Karen Spencer says she's trying to keep her spirits up as the number of COVID-19 cases rise in Nova Scotia. (Robert Short/CBC)

A Nova Scotia respirologist is worried some of her patients could become casualties of COVID-19 even if they don't catch the virus, as hospitals cancel elective surgeries to free up beds and isolate staff.

Nearly all lung transplant patients from the Atlantic region go to Toronto General Hospital for the surgery, but it has temporarily paused lung transplant activities.

Dr. Meredith Chiasson, who from her office in Halifax looks after potential lung transplant candidates from across the Maritimes, said she has one patient in particular who started deteriorating recently.

"Within days of seeing this patient, everything got shut down," she said. "Toronto is not doing any transplant surgeries. Once they start doing surgeries again, I'm not sure this patient will still be with us."

Dr. Meredith Chiasson, a respirologist based in Halifax, said it could take a few years for the health-care system to work through the backlog of tests and surgeries that have been cancelled because of COVID-19. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Another one of Chiasson's patients, Karen Spencer, was supposed to go to Toronto in April for an assessment that would determine when she's officially put on the transplant list.

The 54-year-old has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and depends on oxygen. A year ago, she caught a superbug and learned a transplant would be her only option.

"It's pretty terrifying, I'm pretty scared," Spencer said of the novel coronavirus. "I'm scared I'll catch it and this time it will kill me."

Spencer learned Tuesday that her trip to Toronto General Hospital was off.

Spencer's specialists have found a way to keep her case moving forward. She said they plan to have virtual appointments and speak to her over the phone or by video chat to do her assessment. She'll also have a procedure done at the QEII hospital in Halifax in the coming weeks.

She said the pandemic is taking a toll on her mental health.

Spencer says specialists at Toronto General Hospital will do a virtual assessment to determine when she should be added to the transplant list. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

"Thankfully, I've got my family that keeps me in good spirits and friends too," she said. "There's times though that I don't have a good spirit. I think about 'What if?' and I've got to learn not to think that way."

The virus is creating a whole new set of hurdles on an already difficult situation.

Her workouts at the hospital have stopped, and she can only go outside to walk under specific weather conditions.

A benefit show that was supposed to help cover her expenses was cancelled. Her family created a GoFundMe campaign to see if that might help.

"But with the economy right now, I don't expect anybody to donate right now ... and I just pray to god that something happens good between now and then."

Not only that, if Spencer does get approval to go to Toronto, she'll have to fly and she's worried about potential exposure to COVID-19.

Karen Spencer's niece, Natasha Vaughan, and her husband, Jerry, both have histories of respiratory problems and are considered high risk. (Submitted by Natasha Vaughan)

It's a nerve-wracking time for Spencer's family, many of whom are high risk with respiratory problems.

One of her nieces has cystic fibrosis. Another niece, Natasha Vaughan, has scarring on her lungs from blood clots.

Each branch of the family is now isolating in their homes, cut off from one another. 

Vaughan hopes people realize that families like theirs are the ones medical experts are referring to when they tell everyone to stay home.

'Her life is hanging in a balance right now'

She said the sooner people listen, the sooner her aunt can get to Toronto and wait for her transplant.

"Basically, her life is hanging in a balance right now because we don't know what's going to happen," said Vaughan.

Vaughan also has a message to those who are practising social distancing.

"We can't thank you enough," she said. "You are potentially saving our lives. My sister's life. My aunt's life."

Meanwhile, Chiasson said patients need to be prepared for long wait times when the risk of the virus ends. She uses the example of an echocardiogram, a heart test, where the wait for non-urgent cases has until now been a year.  

"That list, that was already a year, is just going to balloon up to at least a year an a half or two years," she said. "It's going to take a while for us to clean this up."

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About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca