Nova Scotia

About 120 surgeries postponed over 4 days in N.S. amid Omicron wave

Tonya Porter was devastated to learn less than 10 hours before she was scheduled to go under the knife for a life-changing spinal surgery that the procedure was being postponed.

Nova Scotia health authority blames increase in COVID-19-related admissions and staffing pressures

Nova Scotia Health says about 120 surgeries across the province were postponed between Jan. 4 and 7, with the majority in the central and eastern health zones. (ChaNaWiT/Shutterstock)

Tonya Porter was devastated to learn less than 10 hours before she was scheduled to go under the knife for a life-changing spinal surgery that the procedure was being postponed.

Porter, a single mother who rearranged her life in anticipation of being in the hospital for three to five days before a six-month recovery, said she was told her surgery scheduled for Jan. 6 could not go ahead because of nurse shortages.

"I'm devastated and I'm also really scared for my health," the 38-year-old woman said in a recent interview from her home in Halifax.

Porter is not alone. Between Jan. 4 and 7, approximately 120 surgeries across the province were postponed, according to the province's health authority.

That includes approximately 50 surgeries in both the central and eastern health zones and fewer than 10 in the western and northern zones. 

Tonya Porter sits with her 13-year-old daughter. Porter had arranged child care for her recovery, but is now unsure when her surgery will go ahead. (Submitted by Tonya Porter)

The authority said the surgeries included orthopedic, general, ophthalmology, ear, nose, throat, cardiac, dental and urological procedures, as well as some endoscopy and gastroscopy procedures.

"Hospitals throughout Nova Scotia continue to see higher than normal emergency visits and demands for hospital beds, including increasing COVID-19-related admissions and staffing pressures, which are resulting in delays in care and service reductions," Nova Scotia Heath said in a statement.

"The majority of these surgeries are those that would have required hospital admissions, however, some day surgeries were also impacted."

Patient's surgeon described surgery as 'urgent'

Porter has spondylolisthesis and requires a lower lumbar spinal fusion because she has a vertebra out of place in her lower back, which is putting pressure on the nerves that impact her feet and legs.

Her bladder nerves are also nearby, and she's been told the issue could permanently impact her bladder function if gone untreated. 

Porter said her condition, which she has dealt with for two years, has greatly impacted her mobility, and she suffers from pain and numbness. She said her surgeon described the procedure she requires as "urgent."

She waited eight months for an MRI ahead of the surgery, and decided to travel to Antigonish for that since the wait for an MRI in Halifax would have been even longer.

Porter, an artist and small business owner, recently aired her frustrations with the health-care system on social media. She has since heard from dozens of nurses who feel overworked amid widespread staffing shortages that predate the pandemic.

"There needs to be something more done. Why isn't the government hiring more nurses?" said Porter.

About 600 Nova Scotia Health employees were off work last week either because they have tested positive for COVID-19 or they are close contacts of someone who has.

Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the Omicron variant is "exploiting the long-standing fractures that we've had in the system."

MacLean — whose union represents more than 14,000 people working in acute health care, including nurses at the Halifax Infirmary where many major surgeries take place — said staffing has always been a challenge, and more effort needs to be put into recruitment.

NSGEU president Jason MacLean says the health-care system was understaffed even before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

He said health-care workers need to be paid more in order to make Nova Scotia more attractive as a place to work.

"People aren't going to work for peanuts," said MacLean, adding it's important people follow public health guidelines to help reduce strain on the health-care system.

"After two years of a pandemic, people are exhausted and you're really going to have to motivate people to come into whatever sector it is that you're hiring into."

In December, the province's Progressive Conservative government — which touted health care as its top priority during last August's election — announced it was launching a recruitment campaign to increase workers in health care and skilled trades.

Response from Strang

Surgery postponements have plagued the pandemic. CBC News reported in December that it would take more than two years to clear a backlog of hip and knee replacement surgeries in Nova Scotia created, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staffing challenges and higher than usual demands for hospital beds were also blamed for surgeries impacted by the first, second and third waves of the pandemic.

Porter sent a letter to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang outlining her situation and concerns.

She said he replied to her directly, saying he "can appreciate the many challenges that you are facing and the difficult situation that the last minute cancellations of your surgery has created."

"Our acute care system is under substantial pressure due to the current Omicron wave and there are very difficult decisions that are having to be made," Strang wrote in the email.

"Nova Scotia Health is responsible for decisions on the scheduling of health services as well as individual patient care decisions, so I recommend that you continue to discuss your situation with your surgeon and health-care team."

Porter said she is still unsure of when her surgery may take place, which has left her in limbo.

"It's just waiting to see, which is anxiety-inducing and it's very, very upsetting," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aly Thomson

Reporter/Editor

Aly Thomson is an award-winning journalist based in Halifax who loves helping the people of her home province tell their stories. She is particularly interested in issues surrounding justice, education and the entertainment industry. You can email her with tips and feedback at aly.thomson@cbc.ca.

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