Our nurse in charge of booking elective surgery at my public hospital sent me my waiting list last week, and somewhat unexpectedly, I went through it and cried. I cried for the mum who is struggling to care for her children; I cried for the man who has had to reduce his hours at work for a problem that doesn’t classify as urgent but would be fixed by surgery; and I cried for the pensioner who is trying to finish writing her novel but can’t hold her pen. I cried because I have just had two months leave, and I knew that just as I returned, my patients who have already waited for me would be forced to wait even longer. As their surgeon, I feel I have failed them.
Social media today is full of doctors cheering about the cancellation of elective surgery for the foreseeable future. But this is not the entire picture. What many surgeons have been holding for weeks, watching the pandemic spread, is the sadness of knowing that our patients must wait so that a more pressing health crisis can be addressed.
For weeks we have watched our anaesthetic colleagues look scared and despairing, and watched our hospitals emptied of chairs, pop-up cafes and the little stands where people come and sell their crafts. We have watched the number of cases, and then the number of deaths increase overseas, and at home. Watched ice rinks turned to morgues and sporting stadiums into flu hospitals. We have watched international colleagues work without masks, without gowns, without rest against an unseen enemy, and succumb to it also.
All the while we have called for an end to non-urgent elective surgery – to preserve equipment and critical medication; to ensure that our hospitals and anaesthetic friends are ready; and to minimise exposure of all the hospital staff to a disease we increasingly understand is carried and spread without symptoms – we have known what it means for our patients.
Some of us have already stopped operating altogether, others have chosen to honour promises made to patients some time ago, or re-prioritise cases based purely on severity and urgency. But all of us knew that today, when all non-urgent elective surgery was brought to a halt, was coming.
And so today, while I applaud that the right decision was made, I am sorry. I am sorry to the women waiting to have their painful endometriosis treated. I am sorry to those who have had their IVF delayed, especially those who may not have a lot of time left. I’m sorry to those whose gall bladder will continue to play up, and those who struggle to walk with their sore knee. I’m sorry to the aged pensioner who has limited time to finish her story.
In the midst of this pandemic, we do understand that other medical issues go on. So please do not mistake our relief that elective surgery will halt for callous disregard. Many of us have sat, heads bowed, after phoning our patients today, or after speaking to friends who have been affected by this decision in varied and complex ways.
When this pandemic is over, I am certain that the surgical community will work twice as hard to make up for this time.
But please help us end it faster. Please stay at home. Please physically distance yourself from others. So many people in Australia are making so many sacrifices, both involuntary and inflicted. It is the least we can all do.
After 12 hours the government reversed its decision, to allow non-urgent elective surgery for another week, and more than 39 minute haircuts indefinitely. Please don’t choose now to have non-urgent surgery. Please don’t choose now to have a haircut. I don’t want to be redeployed to man a ventilator. Please stay at home