Families forced to go out of province for kids’ heart surgery amid gap in care at B.C. Children’s Hospital

Pediatric heart surgeries canceled after surgeon takes ‘scheduled leave.’

More than a dozen families of children needing heart surgery have been forced to travel long distances to get vital care after B.C. Children’s Hospital informed them there was no pediatric heart surgeon available.

Thirteen children have been sent out of province for surgery since July 1, the hospital in Vancouver says, and seven have since returned. Some parents have traveled as far as Toronto to get the medical care their children need.

Cody Levien and Alyssa Suzara were told less than a month before their scheduled C-section date on July 16 that no team was available to perform urgent heart surgery after their son’s birth. Logan was diagnosed in utero with a rare heart defect that required surgery within a week of delivery.

So the couple, who live in Coquitlam, B.C., flew to Toronto when Suzara was 35 weeks pregnant and spent seven weeks there, from June 20 to Aug. 5, including a two-week stay at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital.

“We were taken by surprise and disappointed. We felt so isolated, as far as a family being able to be there in person,” says Levien.

The gap in care at B.C. Children’s Hospital appears partly due to a leave of absence taken by its chief of pediatric cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi. Court documents have revealed a dispute between Gandhi and another cardiothoracic surgeon at the hospital who was fired but reinstated on appeal.

The hospital has confirmed Gandhi is on a “scheduled leave” but has not said whether the internal conflict is the cause of the canceled surgeries.

In a statement, the hospital said it is aware there is a gap in care and has apologized to patients and families. The hospital said it would continue bringing in heart surgeons outside B.C. to help with procedures temporarily.

It added that it is also “providing financial support for travel, accommodation, and food, on an as-needed basis to support those families” who had been affected.

But Suzara says she was “shocked” when they were offered support of $100 a week to help cover their costs in Toronto.

“I [was] 35 weeks pregnant. I can easily eat $100 in food — and that was for two of us.”

The family said they were initially offered $50 a week.

Suzara says having to jump on a flight to Toronto on such short notice was very stressful.

“We’re a new, smaller family. I can’t imagine the financial costs and everything uprooted for several weeks or longer for bigger families.”

A 6-month-old suffered cardiac arrests during the transfer
When Heather and Steve Lazeski’s six-months-old heart problems worsened in early August, the Kelowna, B.C., the couple was told there was no team available at B.C. Children’s Hospital to help their son.

“They chose to send him to Edmonton by medical transport,” says Steve Lazeski.

During the transport, baby James suffered two cardiac arrests.

“The only way I can describe it is it’s like living your worst nightmare. It was traumatic … the transfer was too much for his little heart,” Heather Lazeski said.

The cardiac arrests damaged James’s kidneys and liver, making him ineligible for a heart transplant until those organs had recovered.

“Without that transfer, he wouldn’t be in the condition he is today,” said Heather Lazeski.

In Edmonton, James was put on a machine to help pump oxygen into his heart and lungs. The Lazeskis say they plan to stay in Edmonton until James is strong enough to receive a heart transplant, which could take up to a year.

When asked about the Lazeskis’ case, B.C. Children’s Hospital said, “we cannot speak to individual cases,” but it was working to improve its heart transplant program elements.

‘Looming uncertainty’
Leesa Kim, from Surrey, B.C., says she received a phone call on May 31 telling her that the heart surgery scheduled for her five-year-old daughter Evelyn would be canceled because Gandhi would be on leave. The call came five weeks before Evelyn’s scheduled surgery.

“I felt shocked … and devastated. Canceled meant all the preparation and all the anxiety leading up to that surgery [was] shattered,” Kim said.

“And now there is all this looming uncertainty about when it will happen. Who will be doing the surgery? Where are we going to be for the surgery?”

Evelyn has tricuspid atresia, a congenital heart defect that obstructs blood flow through the heart, and will require multiple surgeries throughout her life. The family has spent years in and out of the hospital.

“I have been by her bedside in that hospital for hundreds of days in the last five years,” says Kim.

The Kims were told they would know more about Gandhi’s return to work by August but said they had not heard from the hospital.

Doctors’ dispute
A court of appeal document from April 2021 reveals a workplace dispute between Gandhi and Dr. Andrew Campbell and that the hospital eventually terminated Campbell’s contract. According to the paper, Gandhi needed to be consulted about Campbell’s termination.

Campbell appealed the decision. In a Hospital Appeal Board ruling, Supreme Court Justice Nigel Kent said the hospital was aware of the dispute between the two doctors and “chose to do nothing about them.” The Provincial Health Services Authority was ordered to reinstate Campbell.

Campbell has yet to resume work at B.C. Children’s Hospital. The hospital has not confirmed why.

“We remain committed to providing children and their families with the highest quality patient care, but we acknowledge that in recent weeks, we have been faced with challenges in delivering on this, and we apologize for the stress this may have caused the patients and families who need us most,” the hospital said in a statement.

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