Wait for surgery forces life to be put on hold

HEATHER SIMPSON
Last updated 09:23 07/08/2014
Ray Dunstan and Kathryn Walker
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ
SURGERY DELAY: Leigh Gifkins desperately needs surgery to straighten a curvature to her spine but has been passed three times between health boards.

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A Blenheim woman waiting for complex spinal surgery for two years fears she could be stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of her life as she is passed between health boards.

Leigh Gifkins, 52, said she was frustrated by lengthy delays and a last-minute cancellation of scheduled surgery by Nelson Marlborough District Health Board.

The mother-of-three suffers from a lumbar spinal stenosis which has caused a curvature of the spine. Her mobility is deteriorating and she requires a laminectomy operation using rods to straighten and stabilise her spine.

In the last three months she has been shunted between Nelson Marlborough and Canterbury district health boards for surgery three times. Yesterday Gifkins raised her case with the Nelson Marlborough board's patient relations co-ordinator.

The chief medical officer Dr Nick Baker said yesterday the board would be conducting a thorough investigation.

Gifkins became aware of her condition while living in Australia in 2012. An Australian specialist said her degenerative spinal condition was one of the worst cases he had seen. She moved home to Marlborough to access public health care.

In December 2012, a specialist at Nelson Marlborough DHB referred her for an MRI. She waited 12 months for the scan.

Baker said during 2012 there had been some cases of patients waiting longer than six months for an MRI and the Ministry of Health had assisted in reducing waiting times. The board was also exploring the option of a second MRI for Marlborough.

In March, two Nelson Marlborough specialists referred Gifkins for surgery at the Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, home to a specialist spinal unit.

Burwood doctors said she faced a 12-month wait for surgery and Nelson Marlborough specialists could carry out the operation.

In May, two specialists at Nelson Hospital agreed the surgery could go ahead in the region. Gifkins filled out her pre-admission papers and had an appointment scheduled with an anaesthetist.

Last week, the specialists backtracked on their decision at the 11th hour, saying the six-hour surgery was too complex and referred her back to the Canterbury DHB.

The boards wasted three months while her condition continued to deteriorate, Gifkins said.

"I fell to pieces and lost it. I am so upset that they have wasted three months. I will be on my hands and knees if I have to wait 12 months for surgery. Burwood need to see me as a priority. The longer it goes on, the more scared I am my spine will get worse and will be harder to fix. I am dreading that I could be in a wheelchair.

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"My specialist in Nelson has been apologetic but that won't help me. It is frustrating. It is passing the buck . . ."

The former personal carer is no longer able to work. She is gradually losing mobility and is struggling to take care of her daily needs. Crutches and a walking frame help her get about and she sleeps propped up on pillows.

She has put on more than 20kg as a result of her poor mobility.

"It is the waiting game that is the issue. I feel like my life has been put on hold, it is so frustrating. I have always been a busy person. I am not the person I once was. I have turned into a hermit, not by my own wishes."

Labour candidate Janette Walker, who has been assisting Gifkins, said the Nelson Marlborough DHB had failed to provide the adequate care and attention Gifkins required.

"The longer the DHB takes to provide surgery the more debilitated she will become, requiring rest-home care.

"At the young age of 52, not a great option. This woman needs her surgery now.

"Surely value for money should mean that Leigh gets the surgery she so urgently requires so she can get her life back and start the long road of recovery with the ultimate goal of returning to work she so desperately wants to do."

- The Marlborough Express

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