Monday, December 31, 2007

Lifeline for child cancer patients

RUTH HILL - The Dominion Post | Thursday, 04 October 2007

Wellington Hospital's child cancer unit has been thrown a lifeline with the health board's decision to seek an alliance with the Canterbury service.

The Capital and Coast District Health Board's unanimous decision - during an emotionally charged meeting yesterday - came as a five-year-old patient was sent to Christchurch for treatment - the eighth child to be transferred since the unit was closed to new patients in July.

Unless a deal could be struck within three months, the hospital must downgrade its services, chief operating officer Martin Hefford told the board.

The unit cares for child cancer patients in the lower North Island.

Several board members were moved to tears during presentations by cancer patients' parents and doctors, who turned out in force.

The child cancer unit was plunged into crisis with the resignation in July of one of two paediatric oncologists, coupled with an acute shortage of nurses trained to administer chemotherapy.

An independent review identified two options: downgrade permanently and send children with complex needs to Auckland or Christchurch, or establish a joint service with Christchurch as "one service with two sites" under the leadership of Canterbury's clinical director. Lower North Island patients would remain in Wellington for their treatment.

The report by Brisbane paediatric oncologist Ross Pinkerton highlighted serious shortfalls in Wellington's service. In several instances chemotherapy was delayed or the service was "sub-optimal". In one case, lack of communication resulted in a failure to administer a complete course of chemotherapy.

The Child Cancer Foundation's family support coordinator, Margaret Alve, said Wellington must retain the "essential service".

A Maori family and a Samoan family had told her they would consider withdrawing their children from treatment if they had to leave Wellington.

"That's gut-wrenching to hear when we know that 80 per cent of children in this unit can be cured," she said.

Catherine Ternent said her seven-year-old son Sean had spent two weeks in Auckland's Starship children's hospital's intensive care unit before returning to Wellington, and the experience had shown what it was like for families spending months without the support of family and friends.

"My son has spent most of the last year in one room, most of that time in pain.

"Being able to have visits from his brother and father and from friends, who also came to support me, to sit by his bed so I could go and cry without Sean seeing ... These are the things that have made the past year bearable for us."

Mrs Ternent said Sean was nearing the end of his treatment but she wanted to speak out for other families "who don't yet know that their lives are about to be turned upside down".

A Canterbury district health board spokeswoman said the board would wait for an approach from Wellington before commenting publicly.

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