Anne Vermeyden was counting down the days until her surgery.
Vermeyden, 34, has been living for years with chronic pain from a herniated disc. After trying physiotherapy to relieve the problem, a date was set for a microdiscectomy to fix the bulging spinal disc in February.
But when the Kitchener, Ont., woman called the hospital to confirm what she needed to do to prepare for the procedure, she learned it had been postponed — with no new date in sight.
“It’s really frustrating,” said Vermeyden.
“I do feel like my life is in limbo, or purgatory.”
Vermeyden is far from the only one enduring long waits for surgery and procedures in Ontario that are considered non-urgent.
In early January, the province reinstated Directive #2, instructing hospitals to ramp down non-urgent surgeries and procedures to free up beds for COVID-19-positive patients.
Within just one month, 2,300 additional patients across Waterloo region and Wellington County had their surgeries put on hold.
At Grand River Hospital, Waterloo region’s largest hospital, the wait list now stands at about 2,500 surgeries and procedures. Cambridge Memorial Hospital has a wait list of about 1,900, the vast majority of which are related to cataracts.
At Guelph General Hospital, the list is at about 4,900, with nearly half of them cataract cases.
Michelle Lopes, 31, is waiting for laparoscopic surgery. Gina Dilworth, 53, is waiting for a hysterectomy.
Late last year, both women booked dates for their operations for early 2022. Both of them have been postponed.
“I’m miserable,” said Lopes, who’s in Kitchener. She’s waiting for surgery to treat endometriosis.
“When you wake up in pain every single day, and you feel like you’re going to vomit, and you’re dizzy and you’re kind of trapped being home, because you don’t feel well enough to leave the house — it sucks.”
While waiting for a hysterectomy, Dilworth also is dealing with needing knee replacement and ankle surgery.
“I can’t do any of those until I have this hysterectomy,” said the Waterloo resident. “I’m stuck in limbo.”
Some patients in Waterloo region have been waiting even longer for their procedures.
Natalie Poynton, 34, who’s also in need of a hysterectomy, was initially set to undergo the procedure in April 2020, but that was cancelled and rescheduled repeatedly over the course of the pandemic.
The breast cancer survivor, who’s from Kitchener, said her situation is even more stressful because the surgery is intended to decrease the risk of her cancer returning.
“It’s brought a lot of anxiety,” said Poynton.
By now, the surgery has been delayed so many times she almost doesn’t believe it will happen at all.
“I’ll believe it when I’m in recovery.”
‘A number of weeks’ until surgeries ramp up
Ron Gagnon, chief executive officer of Grand River Hospital, said staff in his hospital are working “flat out” to make sure scheduled surgeries and procedures can start up again as soon as possible.
But local hospitals still don’t have the staff or the beds they need to make that happen.
As of Friday, there were 122 patients in hospital with COVID-19 in Waterloo-Wellington, and 225 staff who were off work because of a COVID-19 exposure. That’s fewer than in previous recent weeks, but officials noted they still have more patients than beds available.
“The hospital system as a whole is probably a number of weeks away from being in a position to ramp up non-urgent, non-emergent surgeries,” said Gagnon.
Lee Fairclough, the Waterloo-Wellington hospital lead for the COVID-19 response, agrees.
Last week, the province amended Directive #2 to allow some procedures to resume, but as long as the health-care system is dealing with the fallout of Omicron, “the expectation is that hospitals remain ramped down,” said Fairclough, also president of St. Mary’s General Hospital.
What needs to change?
According to a report last autumn from the Ontario Medical Association, the pandemic created a backlog of nearly 20 million health-care services between March 2020 and September 2021, ranging from doctors’ visits to diagnostic tests and surgeries.
To help clear the backlog, the association’s recommendations range from boosting health-care funding to moving some procedures out of hospitals and into independent health facilities.
“[These facilities] can focus on a specific type of procedure, and they can therefore unlock efficiencies that can increase [the] volume of patients,” said Dr. Adam Kassam, the OMA’s president.
Gagnon believes having enough staff to care for patients whose surgeries have been delayed will be another major hurdle, and echoed the call for more stable, predictable health-care funding.
Graduating more health-care workers, and on boarding more people who received medical training outside Canada, will also be key, said Gagnon.
For now, Fairclough said the most immediate barrier to ramping up procedures “is the virus itself.”
As pandemic restrictions loosen, Fairclough urges people to get their boosters, keep up with masking and stay home if feeling sick.
“We have to continue to focus as a population on reducing the spread of COVID to the best that we can.”
As for the patients whose surgeries have been postponed, they’re left waiting by the phone and hoping for good news.
“[I’m] just trying to survive,” said Vermeyden.