Heart surgery

Boy’s open heart surgery postponed eight times due to Victorian hospital crisis

A five-year-old boy from Bendigo who needs open heart surgery is awaiting his next surgery date after having the procedure canceled twice within the scheduled hour due to the ongoing hospital crisis in Victoria.

Cristean Tilkeridis said in addition to the cancellations, her son Winston’s surgery has been postponed six times since May.

The cancellations come as the Victorian president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Patrick Lo, warned that non-emergency category two and three surgeries may have to be suspended in public hospitals in view of an upcoming rise in COVID infections.

Mr Tilkeridis said his son suffered from a ‘palliative’ congenital heart condition called tricuspid atresia and was due to have his fifth open-heart surgery at the Royal Children’s Hospital in April.

“It basically means that only half of his heart is working,” Mr. Tilkeridis said.

“His condition is palliative in nature. We are expected to live to be 80, but there is no guarantee how long Winston will live.

“We were always aware that Winston would need this operation, and it will hopefully be the last.”

He underwent surgery in October last year to fit a heart catheter in preparation for open-heart surgery.

Cristean Tilkeridis (right) says the impact on his family’s mental health has been “considerable”.(Provided: Cristean Tilkeridis)

Mr Tilkeridis was told the open-heart surgery was to take place within six months of catheter insertion, but after a number of delays he was told that Winston’s operation would take place in mid- may.

“It pushed the six months after the catheter, and in mid-May we were told it was delayed again,” he said.

The operation was then scheduled for June 6 and Winston was admitted to hospital that morning.

“He fasted all morning, we went through the admissions process which includes a rapid antigen test, only to be told there might not be intensive care beds,” he said.

A young boy with a helmet riding a bicycle
Winston has a congenital heart condition that will require multiple surgeries.(Provided: Cristean Tilkeridis)

The operation was canceled an hour before the scheduled time.

Although the procedure was pushed back two days, it was canceled again 40 minutes before the scheduled date.

“Winston is in the pre-op room, he’s met the anesthetist, he’s fully dressed,” Mr Tilkeridis said.

He said the surgeon apologized and it was a “resources” issue.

While they were told the operation could be scheduled for early July, Mr Tilkeridis said he was then told it would be the end of July – and they still don’t have a date.

“We haven’t heard anything yet.”

life stops

Mr Tilkeridis said his family’s life was at a standstill until Winston had surgery.

A photo of a young boy smiling close to the camera
Winston’s family is awaiting the date of his next operation.(Provided: Cristean Tilkeridis)

“I work as a student counselor and my employer had to replace me for a few months at that time.

“I had to go back to work because I don’t have enough time off. I had been planning my time off around this surgery for a good two years.”

Winston and his twin brother Harvey are also unable to start kindergarten, as they have been told Winston cannot be vaccinated until he has had surgery.

The family – including Winston’s grandparents – have also had to remain in self-isolation since May to ensure Winston does not contract COVID before surgery.

Two young boys with headbands with insect antlers attached to them
Twins Winston and Harvey can’t start kindergarten until Winston has heart surgery.(Provided: Cristean Tilkeridis)

Mr Tilkeridis said the situation had had a “tremendous” impact on the family’s mental health.

“Winston used to be okay with going to the hospital, but now he’s really, really anxious,” he said.

“It’s cruel to do this to anyone.

“It’s really important that we are not just numbers, we are people.”

The family fears delays

Although Mr. Tilkeridis was not told Winston’s category of elective surgery, national emergency guidelines for elective surgery state that congenital heart surgeries are generally category two.

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Victorian hospitals brace for cancellations of elective surgeries

Category two is classified as “semi-urgent”, with surgery required within 90 days.

But Mr Tilkeridis said he had not been reassured by medical staff as to whether this type of open-heart surgery months after the originally scheduled date would jeopardize Winston’s recovery.

Mr Tilkeridis said he had contacted Victoria’s Department of Health, and although they were in touch in June asking for more information to investigate Winston’s case, he had no further their news since.

He also said he knew of another Adelaide family requiring open-heart surgery from the Royal Children’s Hospital who were in a similar situation.

The exterior of the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne.
Winston’s operation has been canceled eight times by the Royal Children’s Hospital.(ABC News: Darryl Torpy)

Mr Tilkeridis said he was frustrated with the government’s lack of action to curb the spread of COVID and other viruses.

“We have [medical] staff are getting sick, we have removed all mask mandates.

“For some reason the government is not putting any [restrictions] in place.”

“There are simply no more resources”

The cancellations come as the Victorian president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and neurosurgeon Patrick Lo said non-emergency category two and three surgeries could be canceled due to staff shortages and the severity of the flu season .

“Hospitals are completely full to bursting.”

While he said “every surgery is absolutely essential”, he said halting those surgeries to deal with the next surge in admissions was the “quickest” and “easiest” option.

“I’m not privy to the finer details of what’s going to happen, but something is definitely going to happen.”

Dr Lo said he would appreciate “any help” from the local, state or federal government to support the healthcare system.

“By putting resources in, directing the necessary funding — not just to the hospital system, but to the entire healthcare sector … and listening to us.”

Procedure to reprogram

A Department of Health spokesperson said the department recognized “the stressful circumstances facing this family”.

They said all of the country’s health systems had come under “unprecedented pressure”.

“We are investing billions to get it back on track as quickly as possible and help manage the ongoing impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

The funding includes the $12 billion Pandemic Recovery Plan, which includes a $1.5 billion investment to increase surgical activity beyond pre-pandemic levels by providing an additional 40,000 surgeries l ‘next year.

The department said it was “working closely” with clinical and staff representatives, including the AMA and ANMF, to understand how best to support workers.

The Royal Children’s Hospital declined to comment.