Why a Toronto woman has spent 2 years in a hospital bed waiting for surgery
Posted: December 13, 2019
(December 12, 2019)
By: Lisa Xing, CBC news
The hum of oxygen being pumped into Oula Jaber’s lungs is constant. One look at the long, blue tube connected to her throat and it’s clear that’s what’s keeping her alive.
For two years, Jaber has been waiting for a procedure that could potentially allow her to live without the tube and return home from her room in the complex-care ward of Trillium Health Partners hospital in Etobicoke.
Her daughter, Fatima Salem, has been trying to get a date for the surgery but has had no luck, and in the time her mother has been waiting for the operation, she’s missed Salem’s wedding and the birth of her grandchild.
“Had it been done already, she would have been home right now,” a frustrated Salem said. “My mom missed out on a lot of major life events,” she added. “There are days where I go home and just cry myself to sleep.”
Family questions hospital wait times
Jaber’s case is an extreme example of a problem that plagues health care not just in Ontario but across the country — increasing wait times for a wide range of surgical and diagnostic procedures. Those wait times often force patients to stay in hospital beds that are badly needed by others.
Four years ago, complications from pneumonia forced Jaber to rely on a breathing tube and rendered her unable to speak. A year later, doctors said there was hope she could live without the tube, but scar tissue had already grown around it.
According to medical notes from various doctors shared with CBC News by Jaber’s family, a surgeon was found two years ago at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre who could perform a procedure called a laryngoscopy.
The operation is required to remove the scar tissue before a procedure can be done to remove the tube.
Jaber, 57, was put on a waiting list, and is still waiting.
Had it been done already, she would have been home right now.– Fatima Salem, daughter of Oula Jaber
“There’s no worse feeling than seeing a loved one suffer,” said Salem, who is an only child and was raised by her mother.
‘No transparency whatsoever’
Salem said she called many times, only to be told the specialist at Princess Margaret was on vacation or out of the country on business. She said staff did not tell her where her mother was on the wait list.
“There is no transparency whatsoever,” said Salem.
Fatima Salem, left, is an only child and was raised by her mother. She has been trying to get a date for her mom’s surgery but has had no luck. (Submitted)
The University Health Network (UHN), under which Princess Margaret operates, told CBC News it can’t discuss patient cases but “surgeons with specific specialities can have long wait lists” and work within the “[operating room] time they have available to them.”
Salem said her efforts to speed up the process also yielded few results. She said her mother was referred to two other doctors who eventually said they were not equipped to perform the procedure.
She pointed out the bill for the bed, approximately $1,700 a month, is subsidized by taxpayers.
During Question Period Thursday, opposition leader Andrea Horwath referenced CBC News’s story and asked the health minister, “why anyone should have to live in a hospital bed year after year waiting for procedures that should be available but simply don’t arrive?”
Health minister Christine Elliott said Jaber’s case was “rare and unusual” and that there are “very few surgeons who are able to perform this procedure. This was not anything to do with hallway health care.”
Wait times on the increase
The Ontario government does not track wait times for laryngoscopies, stating the data it collects is based on recommendations from “clinical experts.”
Generally, though, two recent reports show wait times for diagnostic tests and surgeries have increased in Canada. The Fraser Institute published a report Tuesday that showed a median wait time across 12 medical specialities of 20.9 weeks in 2019, compared with 19.8 weeks the previous year.
It’s the second longest median ever recorded by the conservative think tank. However, Ontario had one of the shortest median wait times, at 16 weeks.
In March, the not-for-profit Canadian Institute for Health Information reported 30 per cent of patients across the country who needed cataract surgery or hip or knee replacements did not get the operation completed within recommended wait times. The numbers were similar in Ontario.
Both studies said long wait times lead to mental and physical stress, and financial hardship.
‘Not rocket science’
Natalie Mehra, executive director of a patient advocacy group called the Ontario Health Coalition, said the operating rooms in Ontario are underfunded. She doesn’t find it surprising Jaber has been waiting for two years for her surgery.
“When the government has put in the resources to reduce the wait times, they have been reduced,” she said. “It’s really not rocket science.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Health told CBC News the government is making “significant investments” to end hallway health care, including funding for home and community care and building more long-term care beds.
Meanwhile, Salem said the wait for her mother’s surgery means someone else has to wait for a complex-care bed.
Although the numbers fluctuate from day to day, Trillium Health said there were 14 people waiting for a bed as of Tuesday.
“There are many people [who] need this room more than my mom at this point,” said Salem.