Thursday, June 11, 2009

Child cancer unit loses downgrade fight

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Last updated 05:00 12/06/2009

ROSS GIBLIN/ The Dominion Post
EXTRA PRESSURE: Five-year-old cancer patient Riley Thompson finds support from mum Alison at Wellington Hospital's child cancer unit, which has been downgraded.
KENT BLECHYNDEN/ The Dominion Post
BRAVE FACE: Stephen Uelese - with his treatment beads - and mum Marika Broad.

Wellington's embattled child cancer unit has been downgraded until at least the end of 2010.

After more than a decade of uncertainty caused by the successive resignations of health professionals, Capital and Coast District Health Board announced yesterday that the unit would only provide a "high-level secondary service" for at least 18 months.

This means families of complex or new patients from the lower North Island face the additional stress of travelling to Christchurch or Auckland for treatment.

Capital and Coast chief executive Ken Whelan said it was "pretty clear" that the hospital could no longer offer a tertiary service. "[Downgrading] is our safest and only immediate course of action."

The downgrade was sparked by the resignations of Wellington's two paediatric oncologists husband and wife team Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao who will leave the unit in August after less than a year in the job.

The pair could not be contacted for comment, but correspondence given to The Dominion Post last month blamed hospital management's "hampering" attitude and lack of support for their resignations.

A locum doctor from the United States will remain at the unit until October.

Mr Whelan said the board would work with a group of families, clinicians and administrators to determine what changes were needed to build a sustainable unit and make tertiary services viable again for sick Wellington children.

In the meantime, the board would provide extra funding and support to families who had to travel to get treatment.

Criticisms that the board should have made changes sooner were unjustified, Mr Whelan said.

"It's pretty easy to look back through the retroscope and say that but, when you're in it at the time, it's more difficult to see that solution."

Marika Broad, whose son Stephen Uelese, 9, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in October 2007, said the news was like being "smacked in the face".

"I think it's absolutely appalling of the DHB."

Stephen will receive maintenance treatment in Wellington, but Ms Broad feared that the family would be uprooted if he needed surgery.

"It still might affect us when we need theatre procedures."

She was sceptical about the board's promise of extra funding and support for travelling families. "They've spoken about funding before and where's that?"

John Thompson, whose son Riley, 5, was diagnosed with leukaemia 18 months ago, said the downgrade meant "additional agony" for those families forced to travel.

Other parents at the unit were more optimistic.

Catherine Ternent, whose son Sean, 8, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma aged 5, said although the situation was "not ideal", at least the board had a plan.

"While it's not helpful, at least there's hope this time. We'll be keeping them honest."

John Robson, chair of the Child Cancer Foundation's central division, said there had been "many let-downs and a lot of disappointment over the years", but he was hopeful the board would keep its promises this time. "We've never previously sat down with the CEO. This is an opportunity for us to actually make a better service."

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