'My dad is not just a number': Regina cancer patient unable to get surgery due to full ICU

·4 min read
Richard Baron, 64, was diagnosed with lung cancer on April 9. The cancer has now spread to his brain. His surgery has been postponed due to a full Regina ICU.  (Submitted by Ashleigh Woytuik - image credit)
Richard Baron, 64, was diagnosed with lung cancer on April 9. The cancer has now spread to his brain. His surgery has been postponed due to a full Regina ICU. (Submitted by Ashleigh Woytuik - image credit)

Regina resident Richard Baron was supposed to get surgery this week — surgery that would have been the first step in his journey to treatment and recovery.

The 64-year-old was diagnosed with lung cancer on April 9, which has spread to his brain. The surgery his family was told he would have this week would have removed the tumour on his brain. Without the surgery, Baron cannot begin oncology treatments like chemotherapy.

The reason doctors gave for the postponement was Regina's over-capacity intensive care unit. Baron would need intensive care following the removal of his tumour, and the general hospital simply does not have the beds.

On Friday, the provincial government said 52 people across the province are in intensive care due to COVID-19 — a new high during the pandemic.

Thirty-five of those ICU cases are in Regina.

Doctors told Baron's wife, Belinda Chorney, that the surgery would definitely no longer happen in April, but might be done in early May.

Ashleigh Woytuik, Baron and Chorney's daughter, says that hinges entirely on ICU bed availability.

"Usually in situations like this, when cancer has been discovered in one part of the body and spread to another, there is immediate treatment that is started, because the cancer is already in a progressive state," said Woytuik.

From left to right: Richard Baron, his wife, Belinda Chorney, and their daughter, Ashleigh Woytuik.
From left to right: Richard Baron, his wife, Belinda Chorney, and their daughter, Ashleigh Woytuik. (Submitted by Ashleigh Woytuik)

Baron has been prescribed anti-seizure medication and steroids to help with the area of his brain where the tumour is applying pressure. Woytuik says the steroids have helped with the swelling, but the tumour has an effect on Baron's short-term memory. He is not permitted to be left alone, as he is prone to wander off.

The surgery delay has been extremely hard on her father and her family, she says.

"It has had a great emotional impact on him. He's not sleeping very well at night ... just knowing that that is in his body, and there's not really being anything being done about it."

Baron with his grandchild and his wife.
Baron with his grandchild and his wife. (Submitted by Ashleigh Woytuik)

Meanwhile, Chorney is Baron's primary caregiver. She has been on sick leave in order to care for her husband, but will soon need to go on benefits, says Woytuik.

"The sooner that this surgery happens, the sooner that my mom can also get funds set in place to be able to look after my dad."

'This is stretching us'

Vicki Mowat, the health critic for the Opposition NDP, brought Baron's case up in the legislature on Friday, calling on the health minister to meet with the family and help.

"Richard and his family are suffering because this government let COVID-19 run wild. The least the minister could do is commit to spending some time to talk to them, listen to them, and help to sort out their situation," Mowat said.

"Richard Baron is just one example of many people who rely on the health system who are facing cancellations and dangerous delays in care."

Health Minister Paul Merriman speaks in a scrum as the Saskatchewan legislature on April 23.
Health Minister Paul Merriman speaks in a scrum as the Saskatchewan legislature on April 23. (CBC)

Minister of Health Paul Merriman said that the province does not deal directly with families in these types of cases, but rather it is up to the health-care workers to to triage patients — deciding who can get care now, and who cannot.

The province has a surge plan to provide lower-acuity care in field hospitals if Saskatchewan hospitals are overrun due to COVID-19. But there is no plan for patients like Baron who need intensive care.

"We are working with our health-care providers to make sure that we are performing the maximum amount of surgeries and the maximum amount of normal programming that we have within our health-care system while we are battling COVID," Merriman said.

"This is stretching us. This is stretching our health-care workers and ... we're very lucky in this province that we have the dedication of the health workers to be able to do this."

Lack of precautionary measures

Woytuik says she knows her family is not the first to experience acute-care delays due to COVID-19, and she won't be the last.

"If we knew that COVID had the risk of running so rampant and filling up our ICU beds, why was there not more precautionary measures — like [NDP Leader] Ryan Meili has been calling for this entire time — to increase ICU capacity and to make sure that there is bed availability that is not COVID-related?" said Woytuik.

"We've been dealing with COVID for over a year now, and it doesn't feel like there's been anything done that has actually helped the people that are facing situations like this."

Baron playing with his young grandchildren.
Baron playing with his young grandchildren. (Submitted by Ashleigh Woytuik )

Woytuik says she wants the province to put faces to the families dealing with the stressed Saskatchewan health-care system, not think of them as statistics.

"My dad is not just a number. He's the father. He's a husband. He's a grandfather to my children. He's a brother.

"His life matters to me and my family, even if his life is not impacting those who are making decisions around COVID."