Nova Scotia

Water in fuel led to VG power outage that cancelled 30 surgeries

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says it's working to reschedule about 300 appointments following a power outage on Wednesday that shut down the Victoria General's cancer centre and operating rooms.

Sister of cancer patient says it was 'traumatic' when surgery suddenly cancelled

The VG hospital in Halifax has been experiencing problems for years. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Melinda Daye was waiting with her brother as he prepared to go in for what was expected to be a seven-hour cancer surgery Wednesday at Halifax's Victoria General hospital when the room went dark.

He was one of 30 patients whose surgeries were cancelled when the hospital's operating rooms were shut down for the day, the result of a power outage caused by problems in the facility's generating system.

"What happened yesterday is traumatic," Daye said in an email.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority said it's working to reschedule about 300 appointments following the power disruption that occurred during a routine generator test around 7:30 a.m. 

Electricity was restored in some areas within half an hour, but the downtown Halifax hospital was without backup electricity for much of Wednesday. The cancer centre remained closed, which meant 162 radiation treatments were cancelled.

Ten critically ill patients were also moved to the Halifax Infirmary as a precaution.

Water got into fuel tanks

Technicians spent Wednesday working to determine what exactly caused the problems. They discovered water leaked into the fuel that powers the facility's generator, said Steve Button, the acting senior director of the health authority's facility management and support team.

"We've obviously drained all the tanks, disposed of that fuel. We're getting our tanks inspected to make sure that ... this doesn't happen again, and that is currently underway," he said. 

He said some breakers also tripped when they tried to switch back to normal power sources when the generator failed.

The hospital's generator now has a new fuel supply and a fuel supplier is on standby in case the facility need to run on generator power, he said. 

"We actually have a new temporary, exterior tank that's going to be installed on the outside. That'll give us approximately 12 hours of backup fuel going forward," Button said. 

"So if something does unfortunately happen where we lose street power from Nova Scotia Power, we've got a good backup capability."

Three aging buildings at the QEII hospital complex including the Centennial building will be replaced. (Robert Short/CBC)

Button said they're still looking into how the water got into the underground storage tanks. He said there were no problems with the fuel quality when the tanks were inspected last month.

The health authority said appointments are rebooked with the most critical patients being prioritized.

"Those people affected yesterday will have surgeries and appointments rescheduled as soon as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience to patients and their families," spokesperson Carla Adams said in an email. 

Surgeries and cancer treatment appointments resumed on schedule Thursday morning.

Daye's brother will once again have to go through hours of pre-op preparation next week as the surgery has been rescheduled for next Wednesday. Daye said he shouldn't have had to wait a whole week and she's brought her concerns to her patient representative and the CEO of the Health Authority.

Long history of problems

The province is planning to tear down and replace the aging hospital complex's Victoria, Centennial and Dickson buildings as part of a $2-billion redevelopment of the Halifax's region's hospital system. 

The VG hospital, which opened in 1948, has been plagued with issues for decades. Due to Legionella bacteria in the pipes, patients cannot drink tap water or shower in the hospital. 

In recent years, the facility has also dealt with infrastructure problems that have disrupted care and displaced patients. 

Last spring, there were two separate cases of leaking pipes that caused water damage. In 2017, a leaky valve caused flooding in the bone marrow transplant unit

In September 2015, three floors of the Centennial Building were hit by a significant flood that forced staff to move 50 patients. Just a few months later, there was another pipe leak in the ophthalmology department. 

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past nine years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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