Cancer kids at risk, say parents

Millions of dollars are being spent treating Wellington's child cancer patients in Christchurch, but parents say the skeleton service left in the capital is putting their sick kids at risk.

Some parents of children who have had chemotherapy at Wellington Children's Hospital are calling for an overhaul, either replacing the ageing hospital unit or providing better access to specialist care.

It comes amid growing calls for a new hospital for all child patients in Wellington after an audit last year criticised the high risk of infection in the children's ward.

Wellington has not had its own paediatric oncologist since 2009, after years of funding and staff difficulties.

Capital & Coast District Health Board (CCDHB) has since paid millions to send children to Christchurch for treatment and diagnosis, and many thousands of dollars more flying child cancer experts into the capital once a week.

In the past year alone, 34 child cancer patients from the Wellington region were flown to Christchurch, and another seven were sent to Auckland.

In the past four years, the Wellington region's three DHBs paid Canterbury DHB more than $4 million to treat Wellington's child cancer patients.

However, parents say the arrangement has left the service in Wellington, which treats about 150 child cancer patients a year, under-resourced, disjointed and unsafe.

Helen Salisbury's 4-year-old daughter Jade finished chemotherapy in November, spending the first five weeks in Christchurch and the rest of her 2 years in Wellington.

She said there was a clear disconnect between Christchurch and Wellington, which was worse after-hours and at weekends, when medical staff with oncology expertise in Wellington would have to ring Christchurch specialists for over-the-phone advice.

"Diagnosis by telephone is unsatisfactory," Salisbury said. "Any number of very serious things could be going on, from our children's bodies reacting to the toxicity of the treatment to them having picked up other illnesses, which for most kids are minor but for our children can be life-threatening."

Diana Marsh's daughter, Lara, spent eight months in Christchurch for chemotherapy treatment. She initially returned to Wellington after six months' treatment, only to be admitted to ICU critically ill and flown back to Christchurch, where she spent a further two months.

Marsh said her daughter's level of care went downhill when the family finally moved back to Wellington.

"We had a huge number of problems and hurdles," she said. "I feel her care was compromised by the system. At times I felt it wasn't safe."

Both mothers praised the staff at the children's hospital, particularly the nurses, but felt they lacked support.

CCDHB child health clinical leader Andrew Marshall said he would love to have a full-service child cancer unit in Wellington but had spent years trying to retain specialists, without success.

"I wish we could, but we are just too small. We can't run the service safely with the numbers we have here."

He said he understood some parents were frustrated, but big improvements had been made since Christchurch stepped in to help four years ago. An independent audit of the child cancer service this year had found it was working well, he said.



July 2007: Paediatric oncologist Liz Hesketh leaves for Australia. The unit closes to new patients, and children are sent to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment.

January 2008: The sole remaining paediatric oncologist, Anne Mitchell, quits. Clinical support from Christchurch keeps the ward afloat.

October 2008: Paediatric oncologists Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao move from Germany to resurrect the service.

April 2009: Kratz and Chao quit, leaving the capital without any paediatric oncologist yet again.

September 2010: Wellington's child cancer unit is permanently downgraded, forcing children to travel to Auckland or Christchurch for some of their treatment. Christchurch paediatric oncologist Rob Corbett assures parents the service would not be eroded, with a specialist visiting twice a week from Christchurch.

Those visits have since been cut to one day a week.