By KERI WELHAM - The Dominion Post
Wellington Hospital's embattled child cancer ward has been plunged into chaos by the resignation of two paediatric oncologists only months after they arrived to save the service.
Husband-and-wife team Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao have quit because of "insurmountable" problems less than six months after they moved their family from Germany to Wellington.
Their arrival enabled Wellington Hospital to resurrect its troubled child cancer service in full, after nine months of being forced to send gravely ill patients to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment.
Now, with the specialists' announcement that they leave for the United States in August, the future of the service is again uncertain. Parents of young cancer patients said they were devastated by the news.
Child Cancer Foundation central region chairman John Robson said: "Clearly there are some fundamental issues that have proved insurmountable to the new paediatric oncology team, which is a huge disappointment to us."
Mr Robson said the two specialists had provided excellent treatment. Their resignations raised concerns about Capital and Coast District Health Board's ability to deliver on undertakings about the stability of Wellington's child cancer service.
The board said it would comment today. Dr Chao said she was not prepared to discuss the couple's reasons for quitting, but said she and her husband were "really sorry it's not working out".
"It has been a pleasure caring for these wonderful families and these beautiful children," she said.
Dr Chao, an American, and the German Dr Kratz, a world-leading researcher into the genetic origins of cancer, were employed to replace Liz Hesketh, who resigned in July 2007, and Anne Mitchell, who quit in January 2008.
In the nine-month gap before their arrival, many patients from Wellington and surrounding regions had to travel to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment.
Marika Broad, of Wellington, had just 24 hours to pack and get her family on a plane to Auckland when her nine-year-old son, Stephen Uelese, was diagnosed with cancer in October 2007. They were in Auckland for six weeks, and then spent eight months travelling to Christchurch for fortnightly treatment.
"It was like going to hell and back," Miss Broad said yesterday. "Our children aren't getting looked after properly. They are getting shoved around the countryside when they have a life-threatening disease."
The board announced last year that it planned to recruit a third paediatric oncologist.
WARD 18 WOES
July 2007: Paediatric oncologist Liz Hesketh leaves for Australia. The unit closes to new patients because the hospital cannot guarantee clinical safety. Over the next 12 months, 45 children are sent to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment. Dr Hesketh later tells The Dominion Post she left because of "dwindling resources and a unit moving toward unsafe clinical practice".
January 2008: The sole remaining paediatric oncologist, Anne Mitchell, quits. Clinical support from Christchurch keeps the ward afloat.
October 2008: World-class paediatric oncology duo Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao move from Germany to run the service. The husband and wife team talk of wanting to raise their family in Wellington.This week: Dr Kratz and Dr Chao quit.