'This shouldn't be happening': Concerns raised about state of heart surgery program at BC Children's Hospital

More questions and concerns are being raised about the state of a life-saving heart surgery program at BC Children’s Hospital. Along with transplants being put on hold, heart surgeons are being brought in from outside B.C. to temporarily help cover procedures, leaving some families worried and wondering what’s going to happen.

Lisa Janzen’s little boy Bowen has had two heart surgeries since he and his twin were born in 2015: one operation took place when he was a newborn, and the other happened this May.

“Pretty early on in my pregnancy, they noticed something that was wrong with his heart,” Janzen said. “It ended up turning out that he had a hole, he had narrowing in his aorta, and also a bicuspid valve, which just means it’s a two-leaf system, rather than a three.”

Both operations were performed by the same surgeon, Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, at BC Children’s Hospital.

“That was such a comfort for us to know that, and that is what gave us so much peace that second time,” she said. “Things went really well and he recovered really quickly.”

But recently, Dr. Gandhi has been on a “prescheduled leave," according to the hospital. Court documents reveal a lengthy workplace dispute involving the physician and another surgeon, a situation that was criticized by Supreme Court Justice Nigel Kent in an April ruling as a problem of the “hospital’s own making." He wrote in his decision the hospital was well aware of the individual concerns of the two doctors “yet chose to do nothing about them."

According to hospital correspondence shared with CTV News, heart surgeons from outside B.C. are being brought in as locums, or temporary fill-ins. Meanwhile, transplants were put on hold with families looking at getting on wait lists in other provinces.

“I’m really disappointed and quite devastated that this is even happening,” Janzen said. “Children in this province need access to this care, and locums are not the answer. I don’t feel that’s sustainable.”

Carmen Carriere helped advocate for transplant services at the hospital after her daughter had to go to Toronto for the procedure years before the B.C. program came to be in 2013.

“The problem with locums is it’s a Band-Aid solution. You don’t have the consistency of care,” she said. “I feel like families are the main stakeholder here. Families are not being brought into the discussion. They’re not being adequately communicated with and included on the decision-making, and families have a right to know what the plan is.”

CTV News requested an interview with the hospital, but did not receive a response by our deadline.

In an email sent by the Provincial Health Services Authority on Wednesday evening, media relations spokesperson Cindy Leong said ensuring BC Children’s Hospital has a world-class cardiac surgery program “is our top priority.”

“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,” she said. “We apologize for the stress this may have caused the patients and families who need us most.”

Leong said the hospital is focused on ensuring all the elements will soon in be place to provide a full-service cardiac sciences program.

“We can confirm that complex cardiovascular surgeries continue to be performed at BC Children’s Hospital,” she said. “We are also fortunate to have the surgical expertise of leading pediatric cardiac surgeons from our partner children’s hospital providing on-site care over the summer months and throughout the fall.”

Leong acknowledged some families may require out-of-province care, and said they “deeply regret” causing them additional concern and stress.

“Our teams are working closely with each family, and with our partner organizations, to offer on-going support and ensure detailed care plans are in place to ensure successful transitions,” she said, and added financial support is also being provided for travel, accommodations and food. “It is our goal to return any out-of-province patients back to ongoing care in B.C.”

The emailed response did not address questions from CTV News Vancouver about the current state of the transplant program, and whether there may be a timeframe for Dr. Gandhi’s return.

Carriere said she was told in a recent meeting that in an emergency situation where a child cannot be moved due to their condition, a team would be brought in from Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.

“To me, that doesn’t seem very sustainable,” she said. “I think all the decision makers need to really put up their sleeves and solve this problem yesterday.”

Janzen said for families whose children are awaiting heart operations, not knowing who their surgeon is going to be adds “an extra burden."

“These families are already going through so much emotionally. That shouldn’t be something that they have to deal with on top of what is already going on in their hearts and minds for their child heading for surgery,” she said. “This shouldn’t be happening and I am quite concerned for the future of this program.”