Overwhelmed by COVID, Quebec hospitals face tough choices to reduce surgeries

François Shalom finished his cancer treatment just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

At the time, Shalom felt like he had dodged a bullet. Surgeries and medical procedures were postponed in Quebec in the weeks that followed to prepare for an increase in hospitalizations.

But last summer, the 67-year-old man from Pierrefonds, Que., Learned he had a congenital heart defect. Doctors have told her that her main heart valve is leaking and needs to be replaced.

Shalom was due to have surgery at the end of January at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, but learned this week that it had been postponed indefinitely.

“It’s absolutely petrifying,” he said in an interview. “My life is on the line here. It’s not a facelift I’m waiting for. It’s surgery to save my life.”

Faced with an increase in hospitalizations, Quebec and other provinces, including neighboring Ontario, have again issued guidelines to reduce non-emergency surgeries to free up beds and staff.

This week, Quebec reported more than 2,000 hospitalized patients with COVID for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Paramedics transport a patient to Montreal hospital earlier this week. More than 2,000 people are hospitalized with COVID across Quebec. (Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press)

“They live in pain”

Dr. Liane Feldman, director of surgery at the McGill University Health Center, which oversees the Royal Victoria Hospital, said the university hospital has been forced to make tough decisions about which patients to prioritize for surgery.

“I am worried about the thousands in our own hospital, the tens of thousands in our province and the hundreds of thousands in our country of patients whose surgery has been postponed again and again, delayed, postponed, canceled,” he said. she declared.

“They need their surgeries, they are living in pain.”

In a statement, MUHC spokesperson Annie-Claire Fournier said the situation “regarding the reduction in surgical activity is not unique to the MUHC, but affects all establishments in the province”.

“Activities are limited to free up staff to treat COVID patients and also because we have staff in quarantine,” she said.

Dr Paul Warshawsky, head of the intensive care unit at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, said the number of intensive care patients has steadily increased in recent days. He said the hospital can find more room, but will have to postpone other surgeries to do so.

“Right now, if you need heart surgery you probably won’t have it. If you need another major surgery, your surgery will be delayed,” he said.

Warshawsky said hospitals had previously been forced to prioritize surgeries, but until recently they were catching up with the long list of surgeries delayed by the first months of the pandemic.

“Every time we have to close our operating rooms again, these waiting lists get longer and people waiting for surgeries are being treated very unfairly by this pandemic,” he said.

Dr Paul Warshawsky, seen in the foreground in this image, is the head of the intensive care unit at the Jewish General Hospital. “Right now, if you need heart surgery, it’s very likely you won’t. If you need another major surgery, your operation will be delayed, ”he said. (Alison Northcott / CBC)

Growing staff shortages add to the tension

According to the Quebec health ministry, around 20,000 workers are absent due to the coronavirus, putting even more strain on hospital services which have been strained for nearly two years.

Shalom tries to stay calm, but fears that his symptoms will get worse or that he will have a stroke while waiting for surgery.

He turned to his surgeon for reassurance, but his surgeon himself fell ill with COVID-19 this week and is in isolation.

“I don’t know how exaggerated my fear and anxiety is and how real it is,” Shalom said.

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