3-year-old’s cleft palate surgery delay is ‘heartbreaking,’ says Ontario mom who was told it wasn’t urgent

Andrea Gerardi has been waiting almost two years for her son to undergo surgery which she says will improve his quality of life, but like others in Ontario, it has been pushed back to an unknown date due to the pandemic.

On January 3, the government required hospitals to cancel all elective surgeries in anticipation of a spike in COVID-19 Omicron cases. This is the third time since March 2020 that an indefinite postponement of elective medical surgeries has been put in place by the government.

The break has once again left many people in the dark about when they can expect treatment, including three-year-old Marco from Gerardi, who was born with a submucosal cleft palate.

The condition, according to Windsor’s mother, left a hole in the back of Marco’s throat – a hole that is not visible from the outside. She said it impacted the way she spoke and slept, and left her with a constant cough and runny nose.

“It has been quite an ordeal and you can imagine as a parent how frustrating it is to hear the words ‘non-emergency’ when an operation is impacting your child’s quality of life,” said she declared.

If children aren’t progressing normally as in their cohorts… there may be profound developmental dysfunction, mental dysfunction.– Dr. David Price, President, Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons

“I’m just extremely sad and extremely frustrated for my son because he can’t communicate as effectively as I think he would if he had this surgery. There is nothing more heartbreaking, I think, for a parent who knows there’s a solution out there and it’s just out of reach, because of something that’s so out of our control.”

Although Gerardi was made aware of Marco’s condition in 2019, it took him nearly two years to get an appointment with a specialist in London.

Following his September 2021 appointment with the specialist, Marco’s surgery was booked for December 22. The surgery would repair the hole in his throat and put tubes in his ears.

But two days before, he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Marco was born with a submucosal cleft palate, which means he has a hole in the back of his throat. The condition impacts his speech and sleep, and causes a constant cough and runny nose. (Submitted by Andrea Gerardi)

In January, when Gerardi called the surgeon’s office to reschedule, they said it wasn’t possible because all elective surgeries had been canceled.

“I really think [this surgery] is essential…this operation should have been done much sooner than it is, now my son’s chances of success [post-surgery] is 70% as opposed to a higher success rate because we waited,” she said.

Gerardi added that Marco also has developmental delay – which impacts his speech – but doctors told him that in addition to speech therapy, surgery “is a big piece of the puzzle”.

Long waiting lists for pediatric surgeries

Dr. David Price, president of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, told CBC News that surgical cancellations for young patients can have a significant developmental impact.

He said a lot of thought has been given to when surgery should be performed on a child and how long he can wait for the procedure to achieve the best result.

“During these downturns, [those timelines are] often thrown away,” he says.

“If children are not progressing normally as in their cohorts or not receiving the proper care at the same time, there may be profound developmental dysfunction, mental dysfunction…The next thing we need to remember is that is when we talk about these young people… we do things that affect their lives, their development, their personality and their behavior for another 80 years.”

Dr. David Price, president of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, says he knows that in many places in Canada people are waiting one to two years for procedures due to the pandemic. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Due to COVID-19, Price said, he knows that in many places in Canada people are waiting one to two years for procedures.

“We are going to see the consequences. Practitioners in these hospitals are going to great lengths to mitigate these consequences, but there is not much we can do if we don’t do it ideally in the first place.”

As of now, Gerardi said she doesn’t know when the surgery will take place or if she’ll even get priority when appointments start to get rescheduled.

She said she hopes Marco can get surgery long before he starts school in September.

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