Many operating rooms are empty as patients wait in pain after surgeries cancelled

As some hospital operating rooms sit empty in anticipation of more COVID-19 patients, Canadians with postponed elective surgeries are forced to wait in pain.

Robin McGee of Port Williams, N.S., developed cataracts on both her eyes due to cancer treatment. The condition is reversible with surgery and she had scheduled an operation on March 25, but it was postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Left untreated, I’ll be too blind to drive in six months and completely blind in 12 months,” she told CTV News.

McGee is not alone, either.

Carla Husnik of Toronto suffers from endometriosis, a painful condition where endometrial tissue grows on a woman’s ovaries, bowel, and on the tissues lining the pelvis. She also has a tumour in her abdomen, which she worries could threaten her life if not treated.

Husnik was scheduled for an operation on April 2, but that too was postponed.

“I was just kind of sucking it up and getting through day by day and then all of a sudden that light at the tunnel is completely gone. And it’s all up in the air, I have no idea when I’ll be able to actually not be in so much pain anymore,” she said.

Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak began, doctors across Canada began cancelling elective surgeries, such as cataract operations, cosmetic procedures and even some cancer operations, to prepare for an influx of COVID-19 patients.

This spike hasn’t materialized to the extent they thought, leaving some hospital operating rooms between 30 and 50 per cent empty — unheard of under normal circumstances.

“Our census is down, but that is completely appropriate at this point because what we’re trying to do is anticipate a surge in the need for COVID-19 patients,” said Dr. Nicholas Leyland, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Hamilton Health Sciences. “We don’t want to be doing elective cases that may preclude someone from accessing appropriate resources, such as the operating room or an intensive care unit or a ventilator.”

The longer elective surgeries continue to be postponed or cancelled, doctors worry of a potential backlog and further delays for patients once COVID-19 subsides. Some doctors privately speculate wait times for procedures could run a year or longer. Dr. Leyland knows it’s an issue.

“Wait times are always a concern, even before the pandemic and access to health care in a timely fashion,” said Leyland. “What we’re going to need to do is come up with strategies to be able to increase the capacity within the health-care system to deal with the backlog effectively, so patients don’t have to wait.”

Dr. Michael Gardam, Humber River Hospital’s chief of staff, said there are several concerns hospitals face once they resume normal operations, including the supply of personal protective equipment, availability of sedatives now being used to treat COVID-19 patients and availability of nurses who’ve been transferred to the COVID-19 department.

“We have roughly one-week supply of the medications that we would use if we were to ramp up a lot of these ORs (operating rooms), so that’s really limiting us,” he said. “Even with all the will in the world to want to ramp up there are things that are stopping us from doing that.”

In the meantime, Leyland said doctors are doing their best to help patients deal with their symptoms while they wait for an operating bed.

“It’s our job to reassure them and try to address their issues as they come up as best as we can virtually and by providing them with prescriptions for certain medications to be able to ameliorate many of their symptoms,” he said.

“Hopefully with the treatments that we can offer, we can control their symptoms, but it can’t obviously go on forever.”

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