Perfect winter sickness storm: Lung cancer patient describes night in ‘chaotic’ and ‘overcrowded’ hospital

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A woman waited six hours for a bed in an ‘overcrowded and disgusting’ ward at Christchurch Hospital, then spent the night in a room with an agitated patient, as the city grapples with flu rates in spiral and other diseases.

As Canterbury’s flu rates soared 18% last week, the emergency department was reportedly ‘overwhelmed’ on a daily basis and the hospital was operating at more than 100% capacity.

The perfect storm of Covid, flu and gastrointestinal illnesses are causing long wait times for patients who need to be admitted.

Among them, Nijole Vickerman, a West Coast woman, was admitted to the earthquake-prone Christchurch Hospital’s old Riverside building on Monday for lung drainage.

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After a six-hour drive from Karamea, Vickerman, who is terminally ill with lung cancer, was in severe pain and struggling to breathe. But the ward was so overcrowded that she had to wait six hours for staff to find her a bed, according to her husband, Kent Vickerman.

Describing the building, the husband said “everything was falling apart” and the bathroom was so dirty his wife refused to take a shower.

The building is due for demolition but is still in use while a new tower is being constructed for Christchurch Hospital, after a June 2020 technical review by Riverside revealed parts of it were so bad they were barely usable and likely to fail in the short term.

Terminally ill patient Nijole Vickerman and her husband Kent say conditions in Christchurch Hospital's Riverside building are unsafe and unsanitary.

CHRIS SKELTON / Stuff

Terminally ill patient Nijole Vickerman and her husband Kent say conditions in Christchurch Hospital’s Riverside building are unsafe and unsanitary.

On Tuesday evening, a new patient was admitted to the five-bed room shared by Nijole, according to Vickerman.

The patient, who appeared to have dementia, was up all night shaking the beds of critically ill patients, pressing buttons and pulling out tubes – leaving his wife terrified the patient would do the same with the tube draining fluids of his lungs.

“It’s absolutely disgusting. I want [Health Minister] Andrew Little to spend the night there. Everything falls apart. It is overcrowded. It’s not safe for critically ill patients like my wife.

Dr Jacqui Lunday, Canterbury system-wide operations center controller, said there was considerable pressure on Christchurch Hospital due to the circulation of Covid-19, flu and other respiratory diseases.

Some procedures had to be postponed to provide safe care to those in need, she said.

“We don’t take the decision to delay surgery lightly, however… [it is] the only way to free up beds.

Monday apologized to anyone whose care was delayed or who had to wait for care or be admitted.

“When our hospitals are operating at full capacity, these delays are unavoidable – but rest assured that our staff are working around the clock to ensure those who need care receive it as soon as possible.”

Nijole and Kent Vickerman are angry after Nijole had a frightening experience in the Christchurch Hospital's Riverside building.

CHRIS SKELTON / Stuff

Nijole and Kent Vickerman are angry after Nijole had a frightening experience in the Christchurch Hospital’s Riverside building.

All planned cancer care was continuing, she said.

Te Whatu Ora – Waitaha Canterbury Senior Winter Planner Becky Hickmott confirmed that this winter has proven to be “particularly difficult”.

On Friday, Christchurch Hospital had 56 patients hospitalized with Covid-19 and 12 with other respiratory illnesses, but with 200 staff absent on the same day, and peak occupancy exceeded 100%.

For several weeks, the hospital’s workforce decreased by an average of 180 to 200 a day, in addition to other staff on sick leave for various illnesses or caring for sick children or dependents, she said.

The pressure is on healthcare staff due to Covid-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses circulating in the community and among the workforce.

Kathryn George / Stuff

The pressure is on healthcare staff due to Covid-19, flu and other respiratory illnesses circulating in the community and among the workforce.

On Wednesday, resourced bed occupancy was 114%, meaning there were more patients than fully staffed beds. On Thursday, the maximum occupancy was 105%.

During the week ending June 24, community and public health was notified of an outbreak that included 11 cases of viral gastroenteritis that may be associated with norovirus. Several unrelated cases have also been reported.

Hickmott said perioperative services (at the time of surgery) had worked with private providers, including St George’s Hospital, to use any available operating theater capacity for patients who might otherwise face delays.

However, hospitals are not the only ones feeling the pressure of the onset of winter illnesses, with GPs also struggling with large numbers of flu patients.

Christchurch's Waipapa Hospital, which opened in 2020, is at times overcapacity due to winter illnesses in the community and among staff.

ALDEN WILLIAMS / Stuff

Christchurch’s Waipapa Hospital, which opened in 2020, is at times overcapacity due to winter illnesses in the community and among staff.

Christchurch GP Vanessa Weenink said the flu seemed to make patients of all ages “very sick” and sometimes led to the patient developing pneumonia.

About one in 20 patients with pneumonia required hospitalization, she said.

There was also “lots” of Covid-19 still circulating in the community, and gastro bugs were affecting many people.

The illness had made the rounds for doctors and staff at many medical practices, according to Weenink, with staff sick most of the time.

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