"By-pass surgery cancellation"

About: Northern General Hospital / Cardiology

(as the patient),

As an American with an English wife, I lived in Sheffield for a year and a half in 2000-2001 and used NHS services through a local surgery. I found the care I received to be outstanding: prompt, caring, and helpful. In the intervening years as the health care debate rages in the US I have many times sung the praises of the easy access and excellent care that I received in the UK.

This past Friday when my father-in-law went in for heart by-pass surgery at Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, I witnessed and experienced radically different and shocking medical care that has utterly transformed my opinion of the medical care provided by the NHS. My father-in-law had a heart attack in February, had to wait until April to have an angiogram, and scheduled by-pass surgery in late April for Friday, 4th July. He settled his life's responsibilities to allow him to take the time off for recovery and prepared himself emotionally for the terrifying experience of having his rib cage cut open, his heart put on ice, and his arteries repaired. His family of four daughters and their families prepared to support his legally blind and diabetic wife manage her own health care, visits to the hospital, and recovery time at home. This included time off work and travel like my own with my wife from The States. His extended family and friends were all geared up to provide emotional and practical support.

He was admitted to the hospital on the morning of the 3rd and, though stoic English gentleman, really struggled with anxiety about the impending surgery. On the morning of the surgery we visited him to help him pass the time before the 11 am scheduled surgery, taking turns to sit by his bed and chat or work on crossword puzzles. Naturally, he was very anxious, watching the clock tick away toward 11. It passed, as did 12 before a man came in and told him that the first surgery of the morning was a bit more complicated but that his would proceed in a little while. He knew about this possibility, so he took that in stride. At 12:20, however, two men pulled the curtain around his bed and told my father-in-law bluntly that his surgery had been canceled due to a shortage of ICU beds.

They spoke matter-of-factly - as though they were telling him that the shop had run out of tea bags, and he would have to come back on Monday for his tea. By their manner I can infer that this happens regularly. I consider it appalling and outrageous! To cancel a major surgery at the last moment before the patient believes his surgery will begin - a surgery that was scheduled for months and prepared for emotionally and physically - borders on cruelty and certainly crosses over the line of harming the patient, thereby breaking the hippocratic oath that doctors in my country consider sacrosanct.

I think eveyone could reasonably understand that in a system like a hospital unpleasant decisions must be made and some people are not going to be satisfied with the care they receive. I can certainly understand postponements of lesser procedures due to unforeseen circumstances. However, it is unacceptable and wrong to allow a patient for such a major surgery to go all the way to the moment of the surgery and send the patient away to reschedule his surgery. It is true that he has been given a date for surgery 10 days later, but it completely upsets the plans that those around my father-in-law made to help him recover. It also minimizes the emotional strain that preparing for such a surgery places on the patient. Friday, 4 July 2008 was an embarrassing day for the NHS and all the more so if NHS officials consider such cancellations to be acceptible.

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