Parents upset medically-fragile children losing care due to COVID-19 redeployment

Specialists who normally work with medically-complex children on an outpatient basis are being redeployed to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and other areas of hospitals to assist with the COVID-19 crisis. Parents of those children worry they will suffer long-term effects from losing access to physical therapy and other services.

Saskatchewan shuts down some pediatric services to redirect health-care workers to contact tracing

Seven-year-old Zoey Schmidt plays outside in Regina with her little brother, Charlie. The medically-fragile girl, who has autism and Down syndrome, has received physical therapy every two weeks to strengthen her muscles and motor skills. But now, her physical therapist has been redeployed to help with Saskatchewan's COVID crisis. (Submitted by Pam Schmidt)

Seven-year-old Zoey Schmidt can't go to school or take part in activities in the community because contracting COVID-19 would likely kill the medically-fragile girl, according to her mother.

Even a common cold can quickly turn into pneumonia for Zoey, who has autism and Down syndrome, landing the girl in a pediatric intensive care unit for weeks.

Pam Schmidt has kept Zoey at home in a small bubble for 19 months. She's only made one exception: a physical therapy appointment for Zoey every two weeks.

"When people say: 'Oh, you're living in fear' — it's like, I do live in fear because my daughter will die if she gets COVID. I've had a doctor basically say that to me," Schmidt said.

But, the mother decided to resume in-person physical therapy for her daughter at Regina's Wascana Rehabilitation Centre this summer because she trusted the physical therapist and worried Zoey was regressing. The non-verbal seven-year-old lacks muscle tone and motor skills, Pam said, and needs therapy to walk up stairs or do simple tasks with her hands.

This week, she learned that therapy has been halted indefinitely because the physical therapist has been redirected elsewhere in the health-care system to assist with the COVID-19 response. The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) warned in late September that pediatric outpatient services could be scaled back to redeploy workers to contact tracing, testing, or frontline care.

Schmidt is disappointed that her daughter is being stripped of her only safe activity and therapy.

"We didn't see the professionals in her life for months, is that going to affect her long-term?" she said. "I think every part of health care is important. Every piece of the puzzle matters."

Long list of pediatric therapies halted

The SHA said it couldn't provide a detailed list of positions for each service slowdown. A news release on Sept. 23, 2021 said 800 to 1,000 elective surgeries and procedures would be delayed a week, and that home care, respite care, stroke prevention clinics, rehab services, and children's outpatient services would be scaled down. 

On Thursday, Premier Scott Moe said the slowdown has expanded to 275 services to free up health-care workers and raise ICU capacity. The province had 79 ICU beds initially, but has increased that to roughly 130, the premier said, with a goal of finding staff for 180 ICU beds, if possible.

CBC News has confirmed many pediatric therapists in Regina and Saskatoon have been redeployed, including speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and psychologists.Children's programs also include dietitians, exercise and music therapists, prosthetists, audiologists, social workers, and other specialists.

'We are outraged'

Schmidt is not the only parent speaking out.

On Thursday, Rachelle Mievre posted her 18-month-old son's story on Twitter. 

"This is the face of a kid who's no longer receiving the therapy and support he needs thanks to Premier Scott Moe," she wrote.

Rachelle Mievre posted this Tweet on Oct. 7, 2021, about her 18-month-old son losing access to physical therapy and occupational therapy. (Rachelle Mievre/Twitter)

Mievre shared a letter that she had sent to her MLA Christine Tell about her son, who had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He's been accessing physiotherapy and occupational therapy for the past 10 months at Wascana Rehab. 

The mother said her son won't get specially tailored shoes made at Wascana Rehab in order to walk, or the exercises and equipment he needs, and could suffer long-term effects.

"[W]e are outraged that our son's development is being hindered by your government's inaction," she said.

Confused and scared

Zoey had already lost access to music therapy and occupational therapy at Wascana Rehab earlier in the pandemic. The physical therapist has been helping her since she was a year old.

"She knows Zoey really, really well, and is really good with her, and knows her personality, and is able to engage Zoey and get her to try things. She's just really good at her job," Schmidt said.

Zoey Schmidt's mother has kept her home from school and extracurricular activities during the pandemic on the advice of a doctor. Her only regular outing was a physical therapy session that's now been cancelled indefinitely so the therapist can be reassigned to help with COVID-19. (Submitted by Pam Schmidt)

Schmidt, a social worker, worries about other parents who are just starting to seek specialized care for their medically-complex children. Those first months and years can be daunting, confusing, and scary for people who don't know how to navigate the healthcare system, she said.

Many specialists have long wait lists, she added.

"Once you get in, parents are usually really excited thinking this is really going to help my son or daughter, and now they don't know how long they'll be waiting," she said. "Some of those parents would be thinking: 'Oh I'm going to be in the next two months.' Now, it's like: 'No, it's six months,'" — or longer, she said, "which is a big time period for kids who need those interventions."

The mother is frustrated that the government isn't imposing tougher restrictions — like gathering size limits or a vaccine passport system with fewer loopholes — and that people aren't getting vaccinated, but most of all, she's upset that children are losing their healthcare as a result.