New Zealand Herland: Covid-19 Omicron outbreak: Wait times for heart surgery grow at Auckland DHB


This article was written by Emma Russell for the NZ Herland on January 29, 2022. To access the original article, click here

A dad who has had two heart attacks and has been told by a doctor that there’s a very real risk he could drop dead at any moment, is tormented after waiting months for surgery.

Clive Caine, 70, is one of many New Zealanders whose life-saving operation continues to be deferred because of rising demand on hospital services caused by the pandemic.

Auckland District Health Board’s interim director for cardiovascular services Joanne Bos said there had been a significant increase of heart surgery referrals since October, as well as more than usual emergency cases, which was affecting wait times for some planned surgery.

As at January 24, she said 175 patients were on the wait lists for cardio thoracic surgeries at Auckland DHB.

The South Auckland retired teacher suffered his first heart attack in August, shortly before his 70th birthday, while mowing the lawns.

“Within 10 minutes I suddenly felt very unwell. I was extremely dizzy, nauseous and tired, feeling as if I would faint or vomit,” Caine said.

He said he felt no pain so he didn’t even think it was a heart attack and instead something he ate.

He rested for a few hours and then carried on with his day as normal but two days later he began to mow the lawns again and got the same feeling. This time he knew he should see a doctor.

A electrocardiogram (ECG) test, used to quickly detect heart problems, came back normal. As a precaution, he had a blood test and went home.

“We’re doing everything we can to work through our wait list and reduce wait times, including running additional surgical lists during the weekend and utilising private providers where possible,” Bos said.

But as the DHB scrambles to catch up on the backlog of cancelled surgeries, patients like Caine were becoming fed up with waiting.

“I don’t want my wife to be left a widow,” he told the Herald.

However, the next day he was driving to Tauranga to help his elderly mum get a Covid-19 vaccine, when he got a call from his doctor saying he needed to go to hospital immediately as he was having a heart attack.

He had further testing at Tauranga Hospital where he was admitted overnight for observation before driving back to Auckland the day before lockdown was announced on August 17.

Caine said doctors at Middlemore Hospital told him he needed a triple bypass surgery to restore blood flow to his heart as there was a very real chance he could drop dead at any moment.

A letter dated October 20 from Auckland DHB, seen by the Herald, confirmed the surgery was needed and said they expected it to be performed in the “near future”.

Over the phone, he said he was told it would likely be performed early November, then it was late November and then late December and then sometime in January.

On Wednesday, he got a call from a specialist at ADHB who said he was the 171st person in the queue for heart surgery and suggested it could be months until he was given a date. If he had another heart attack it’s likely he would be seen straight away, Caine said he was told by the specialist.

Meanwhile, his son has quit his security job to help his dad with physical tasks at home.

“I am very fortunate to have such support and concern from my family but it has been an emotional strain on my family and myself as each day I wake up wondering what will happen today.”

He said he was told by a hospital receptionist that his case wasn’t even the worst one and many others were waiting.

“I wonder how many more men and women throughout New Zealand are also waiting for important surgeries that are essential for our health and wellbeing.

“I feel the loss of energy each day as I continue to hope that my surgery is not too far away. It seems to be worse with the heat of the afternoons where I can do nothing much but wait inside feeling as if I am in a continual ‘lockdown’ situation,” Caine said.

Nurses Society of New Zealand director David Wills said he understood nationally 23 per cent of heart surgery patients are not receiving their surgery within the required four-month timeframe.

The figure for orthopaedic surgery is 50 per cent, he said.

The pandemic, on top of historic underfunding, was aggravating delays in all planned care services – especially booked surgeries, Wills said.

“We only have to look at what is happening in Australia to see what the next few months could be like. Planned care services there are largely on hold.”

Bos said the DHB knew it could be an anxious time for patients like Clive and their whānau when they are waiting for surgery.

“We really feel for our patients who are waiting longer for their procedure than they, or we, would like. We acknowledge how distressing this may be and we apologise,” Bos said.

Auckland DHB acting director of provider services Duncan Bliss said 24 cardiac bypass surgeries had to be rescheduled in the past quarter.

“It’s not common for cardiothoracic surgery to be postponed once scheduled, and in instances where a surgery is postponed, it’s usually rescheduled quickly,” Bliss said.

Bliss said they were anticipating more planned care would need to be postponed as Covid cases in hospital increased significantly and staff were off because of Omicron.

“This is to ensure we have sufficient capacity and resource to care for acutely unwell patients, including patients with Covid-19. We never take the decision to postpone planned procedures or surgeries lightly.”

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