Winnipeg man needing urgent cardiac bypass surgery still waiting after 4 postponements

A Winnipeg man whose cardiac surgery has been postponed four times is starting to wonder if he’ll ever have his day on the operating table.

Army veteran Brian Lethbridge, 52, has been waiting since Sept. 9 for quintuple bypass surgery at St. Boniface Hospital. He’s been given four surgery dates so far, but the hospital has called him each time to postpone.

“It gives you up and down feelings. [First] you’re positive, ‘OK, I’m going in for surgery.’ And then all of a sudden, bam, they cancel it. Now I gotta wait another week,” he said.

The wait list for cardiac surgery was 204 people on Sept. 23, according to a St. Boniface spokesperson, which is about double what it was pre-pandemic

“First time it was cancelled, I was mad. I was gonna cancel the surgery and just live my life out. But then it happened a second time and the third time I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever. Alright, do it next week,'” said Lethbridge, who admits he’s not looking forward to his upcoming bypass, which is open heart surgery, but knows that he needs it. 

Bypass surgery is done to improve blood flow to the heart, typically after arteries have become blocked with plaque due to coronary artery disease. Surgeons remove a healthy blood vessel — often from the leg — and attach it to the blocked artery in hopes of improving blood flow to the heart.

St. Boniface Hospital’s cardiac sciences program urgently needs nurses and beds to address the heart surgery wait list. (Submitted by Steven Palmer)

Lethbridge has a growing concern for his own health, as his surgery is urgent, and he’s feeling unwell at home. He said his doctor told him there is only two-thirds of the normal blood flow to his heart and most of the surrounding arteries are blocked. He has chest pain, fatigue and trouble breathing at night and said his toes are becoming discoloured.

He said the hospital told him the cancellations are due to staffing and a backlog of patients also waiting for heart surgery.

“I don’t blame the hospital one bit. I don’t know if it’s a bad thing to say or not but I blame the government,” he said, adding he believes its actions led to a shortage in the province of nurses and doctors.

In 2017, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority led an overhaul of hospitals in order to “find efficiencies” to find $83 million in savings as mandated by the provincial government. Nurses, doctors and the Manitoba Nurses Union have long spoken of the impact of consolidation on the provincial nursing shortage.

A spokesperson for St. Boniface Hospital said the limitations affecting the cardiac surgery backlogs come down to the impact of COVID-19 on bed availability and nursing shortages, which are leading to some cancellations.  

“We are aware of the stress and inconvenience this causes to our patients, and we are all working to ensure the number of cancellations remains as minimal as is reasonably possible,” wrote the spokesperson. 

The spokesperson added that the wait list has not increased significantly in recent months, as the cardiac surgery team has been “striving to perform 75-80 per cent of their normal volume of procedures for nearly the past year.”

The spokesperson added the most urgent cardiac cases are waiting about two months for surgery, which decreases if the patients are severe enough that they are admitted to hospital or if their symptoms progress to a critical stage. 

Wait list higher than ever: St. Boniface source

A person involved with the cardiac program at St. Boniface Hospital, who spoke to the CBC on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job, said the wait list is at a historical high mainly due to a shortage of intensive care unit nurses. 

“Compounding this, however, is that the cardiac surgical ICU beds are not “protected” by Shared Health. That is, they essentially retain the authority to put any ICU patient into the cardiac ICU spaces which can severely limit our capabilities. They are just considered part of the general provincial ICU bed pool,” wrote the source. 

They added the team has tried doing cases seven days a week, which requires operating room nurses to “volunteer” their weekends at the expense of their time off. 

“No easy solutions, but there needs to be a high level decision that directs cardiac surgery to be protected and not be compromised by other non-cardiac ICU needs,” the source wrote.

Brian Lethbridge said if his symptoms worsen at home, he’ll be admitted to hospital without having to wait in the emergency department. But he’s worried about that too, because even though he’s double vaccinated, he’s encountered many patients in past hospital visits who aren’t. 

“They should be moved to a different part of the hospital for COVID and have those ICU beds for people like me that are having heart surgery, and we’re fully vaccinated,” said Lethbridge. 

He is trying to stay patient, stress-free and safe until it’s truly his time to go.

“I don’t want to get the surgery, but I have to. I was hoping to go through life without getting anything done, because my dad always said that once they cut you once, they’ll cut you again. So I was trying to go through life without getting any special heart operations,” he said. 

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