Alberta doctors scrambling to get cancer surgeries done before 'tidal wave' of COVID-19 patients

Health officials and doctors in Alberta are hard at work trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but trend lines in other areas of the world suggest the worst is yet to come — and one doctor says that “tidal wave” of cases is likely to overwhelm the healthcare system.

“Other countries are only a few weeks ahead of us in terms of how this virus spreads through a population,” said Dr. Geoffrey Gotto, a Calgary oncologist specializing in surgery for prostate, kidney and bladder cancers. “We’re anticipating that our hospitals and [intensive care units] and [operating rooms] are going to be completely overwhelmed before the end of April.”

Gotto said elective surgeries, including cancer surgeries, were cancelled on Wednesday so that the most urgent cancer cases could be rebooked and completed before the influx arrives.

“Only the most urgent cancer surgeries are being booked in the next two-week period, and then the plan is to reassess that going forward depending on what happens in the coming weeks,” he said.

In a statement, Alberta Health Services said it was continuing to do emergency urgent surgery for all patients, including cancer patients.

“Any patient who needs surgery or an oncology procedure will receive it. They will be triaged for urgency, just as they would have before the pandemic,” the statement reads. “We acknowledge this is a challenging time for all of us, but especially for our patients.

“AHS is doing all it can to ensure Albertans with urgent health concerns get the care they need.”

AHS said surgeries are being prioritized so that patients with urgent life-threatening complications and highly aggressive cancers go first.

‘I cried and I cried’

The struggle to accommodate the looming health crisis has led to some cancer patients having their surgeries rescheduled, like Cam Forster, who has cervical cancer.

Forster said she received a call earlier this week that her scheduled surgery had been cancelled.

“After I got off the phone, I cried and I cried. My body didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was mad, I was stressed out, and I’ve been under so much stress regarding the surgery as it is.”

After Forster spoke out, her surgery was rescheduled.

Gotto said doctors and health officials are working to get as many surgeries done as possible, but he is concerned about the “huge amount of anxiety” the changes will cause on patients and their families.

“There are people within AHS and the department of surgery that are working tirelessly, seven days a week, overnight, not sleeping, trying to figure out how to prioritize these surgeries,” Gotto said. “[We need to] get as many of them done as possible before this tidal wave of COVID-19 cases show up [and] basically leads to overcapacity of our hospitals.”

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