Surgery delay nightmare

Paul Copeland has done five COVID-19 tests in the last year as part of preparations to remove a hernia at the St Ann’s Bay Hospital, but he has been left disappointed by postponements at every appointment.

The last time was two weeks ago when the 51-year-old father of two said he was informed by a doctor that he would likely have to do yet another COVID-19 test. Copeland feels this would be pointless as there are no guarantees. Instead, he intends to seek a loan to finance the $80,000 procedure privately.

“There is no need to keep doing it [the COVID-19 test] and each time you do it, when you waste your time and money and all of that, believe that you are going to get through, you still don’t get through,” Copeland told The Gleaner.

“So I am right at square one, checking around to see if I can find a private doctor who can do it,” he said.

Copeland’s personal woe is emblematic of the disruption to elective, or non-emergency, surgery caseload. The majority of Jamaica’s hospitals have been grappling with overcapacity of admissions since a wave of coronavirus infections in early February. Hospitalisations from COVID reached a record 433 on Monday.

Copeland’s COVID-19 swabbing is done at the St Ann’s Bay Hospital at no cost to him, but he spends as much as $700 for transportation for each visit and he often dreads the discomfort associated with the procedure.

“The one they put in your throat, it feels as if, bwoy, sometimes your whole inside want to come out. It is not nice,” he said of the COVID-19 test.

“I can’t do any more unless I am sure that I am going to get through because it doesn’t make any sense.”

But although the pain associated with the hernia is unbearable at times, it is unlikely that Copeland will get his surgery done any time soon. He is among scores, and perhaps hundreds, of Jamaicans whose elective surgery has been postponed across the four health regions.

PRIORITY TO SAVE LIVES

Regional technical director at the North East Regional Health Authority (NERHA), Dr Patrick Wheatle, said the priority for medical officials at this time is to save lives.

“It is only prudent that we prioritise our activities, especially in the operating theatre. So our operating theatres are only dealing with emergencies at this point in time,” he told The Gleaner.

The St Ann’s Bay Hospital falls under NERHA, but Wheatle said he could not speak specifically about Copeland’s case.

Globally, COVID-19 is upending doctor’s appointments for elective surgeries as medical resources are diverted to deal with more critical patients. This has resulted in a lengthy waiting list of persons hoping to get relief from chronic pain caused by debilitating conditions in some cases.

Jamaica recorded 335 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and six additional deaths. Almost 19,000 of the 36,231 cases are active.

As the spread of the virus spirals, some hospitals have mandated that COVID-19 tests be conducted for elective surgery candidates.

“If you put a patient in an operating theatre, despite the fact that we practise the necessary precaution in terms of our PPEs (personal protective equipment) and so on, that poses an extra risk, so it is advised that it [COVID-19 test] is usually done,” said Wheatle.

Chairman of the South East Regional Health Authority (SERHA), Wentworth Charles, said that medical staff determined the basis for COVID-19 tests as a precondition but only emergency cases are being attended to in the region, which includes the Kingston Public Hospital.

Charles could not immediately provide data on the number of elective surgeries performed at SERHA-governed hospitals in recent months.

Three consecutive weekend lockdowns, geared towards easing the rates of infection and hospitalisation, will take effect on Friday.

“We face what could be described as an existential threat. The potential breakdown of our health system … is a serious threat, and it is of grave concern and we have to take the measures that we have put in place today in order to bring these numbers down rapidly,” Prime Minister Andrew Holness said at a Jamaica House press briefing on Sunday.

The fallout from COVID-19 has already impacted Copeland’s job.

Instead of a full workweek, he is now employed for two to three days as a steward at a local hotel. As he mulls the prospect of a sixth disappointment, he feels he has no option but to bypass the free healthcare and plough deeper into his savings.

nadine.wilson@gleanerjm.com