'It's really scary': Saint John woman can't find thoracic surgeon to remove tumour

Soup is the only food Eileen Shaw can swallow these days and even that is becoming difficult to get down, past the growing tumour in her throat.

Shaw, 65, of Saint John, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer six weeks ago and says a gastroenterologist referred her for surgery, marking her file "urgent."

But no thoracic surgeon is available in Saint John, Moncton or Fredericton.

The Horizon Health Network is dealing with a thoracic surgery coverage "crisis" until at least April, according to an internal email, obtained by CBC News earlier this month.

"It's really scary," said Shaw, who has had many sleepless nights after also been turned away by Halifax.

"I'm thinking, 'Oh my goodness, where am I going to go? Am I going to die?'

"I want to go to my daughter's wedding [at the end of May] and I'm afraid I'm not going to make it," she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Thoracic surgeons are specialists who deal with all structures of the chest, with the exception of the heart, including the esophagus, lungs, chest muscle and diaphragm muscle.

They treat diseases ranging from gastroesophageal reflux to lung and esophageal cancers, remove benign tumours, perform chest reconstruction after major traumas, and handle lung transplants.

Dr. David Tees, chief of surgery for the Saint John area, sent an "urgent" memo  on Feb. 28 to all members of the department of family medicine about the staffing shortage.

"We have found ourselves in the difficult position of having no thoracic surgery coverage in Saint John or Moncton for at least four weeks," the email states.

CBC News requested an interview on Monday. Tees responded with an emailed statement.

"All patients needing a thoracic surgeon have been referred to a surgeon in Fredericton, Moncton or Halifax," he wrote.

"We recommend patients and their family members who have questions regarding their care to contact one of our patient representatives. The patient representative is there to help patients and their families navigate the system and address any concerns."

'We're desperate'

But Shaw's daughter, Britney Shaw, says she has already done all of that.

Other relatives and friends have also reached out to politicians at all three levels of government through email and social media, calling on them to take "immediate action" on the situation they describe as a "state of emergency."

"We're desperate," said Britney Shaw, 30, who lives in St. Stephen and was attending culinary school in Saint Andrews but has dropped out to help her mother and is sleeping on an air mattress on her floor.

"What's the point of early detection when essential health care services aren't even available?"

Plea to other jurisdictions

She's now exploring options in Ontario and Newfoundland, after being referred four times in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, "only to be told that it's not possible," said Shaw.

"We discovered that one surgeon is out indefinitely, one surgeon is out on sick leave, and one surgeon is inundated, so he's … just overwhelmed," she said.

In Halifax, "it was determined that only one surgeon out of five is currently accepting referrals as the remainder are also saturated and aren't absorbing any other cases, but that surgeon is away from the office."

"Doctors of course need vacation and they deserve sick leave, but when there's nobody there to replace them, it impacts the quality of life of patients."

The New Brunswick Department of Health did not offer any comment on the ongoing shortage of thoracic surgeons or what is being done to address the problem.

The department "understands that the Horizon Health Network is referring patients to thoracic surgeons within and outside the province," spokesperson Sarah Bustard said in an email to CBC News.

Asked whether medicare would cover out-of-province surgery, Bustard said insured services under the Medical Payment Services Act would be covered at a public hospital within Canada.

She did not elaborate on the criteria.

Travel and accommodation expenses would not be covered, she added.