‘It hurts and I’m scared’: Ontario hospitals struggle amid COVID-19 surge as patients wait for life-saving surgeries

TORONTO — Sitting in her living room in Richmond Hill, Ont., a deep-rooted sense of dread washed over Kristin Whitehead as she watched politicians one-by-one, on her television, explain the devastating impacts COVID-19 will have on the already-weakening health-care system. 

The Stage 3 cancer patient has been waiting for surgery since October to have her growing tumour removed, but as hospital beds fill up with people hit hardest by the deadly novel coronavirus, she worries her potentially life-saving procedure will be postponed.

“Hearing that hospitals are already starting to fill up and they have to triage patients to take care of people, it’s frightening,” Whitehead told CTV News Toronto. “I have stage three colorectal cancer and if I don’t get the tumor removed, it will spread to the rest of my body. I’m dying.

“It’s complex, and it’s frustrating, and it hurts, and I’m scared.”

Whitehead is one of hundreds of Ontario residents who may have an important life-saving or life-altering procedure impacted by COVID-19. One Ontario cancer surgeon says doctors in the province are already triaging patients.

Dr. Shady Ashamalla told CTV News Toronto that doctors are currently struggling to make tough decisions on who can and cannot safely wait for surgery based on varying degrees of urgency.

“There is not good evidence, there are not strong studies that can support the decision making on who can wait for surgery, and who cannot,” Ashamalla said.

“So these things often will boil down to expert opinion or best guesses, which is not generally how we practice medicine and so physicians are being asked to really practice outside of their known expertise and do their best.”

The surgeon warns that with the current trajectory of COVID-19 cases, even the most urgent surgeries will be impacted.

“That functioning health-care system will certainly not be able to sustain these volumes of COVID patients,” he said. “It’s not just the COVID patients that need the health-care system, the health-care system is for everyone … and right now that system is buckling under the pressure.”

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have increased by 72.1 per cent over the last four weeks, officials said on Tuesday during the presentation of the province’s latest modelling data, while the number of patients in intensive care has increased by 61.2 per cent.

Just over 1,600 people are currently in hospital due to the disease, according to the province. Of those patients, more than 400 are in intensive care, and 280 are breathing with the assistance of a ventilator.

The government has previously said that once the number of COVID-19 patients in the ICU exceeds 300, it becomes nearly impossible for health-care workers to provide care not related to the disease.

“I want to be clear, the impact on our health system is already greater today than we’ve ever seen in Ontario’s history,” Epidemiologist Dr. Adalsteinn Brown said on Tuesday.

He added that as the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care grows, doctors would have to make choices “no family ever wants to hear.” Experts say these decisions may have life and death consequences.

Ashamalla says physicians have been sounding the alarm for months that the health-care system would get to this point.

“It’s been a very frustrating process, watching it happen, it’s like a slow motion car accident,” he said. “On the current trajectory, if things do not change drastically, all Ontarians are at risk of not having a functioning health care system.

“There is a breaking point. It is a limited resource.”

Ashamalla urged residents in the province to follow public health advice stringently. In addition, he said the government must help empower people to stay home and follow the COVID-19 guidelines by offering sufficient paid sick leave and spaces to quarantine.

Kristin Whitehead has been quarantining in her home since her cancer diagnoses in October. She said she is urging Ontario residents to take the deadly pandemic seriously to save lives.

“Why are you willing to put yourself and your loved ones at risk to attracting a fatal disease when you do not have to? I already have one,” she said. “Please don’t make it worse for me by making sure I can’t get the surgery I need to save my life.”  

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