Friday, May 1, 2009

New blow for child cancer patients

Click here for original article

By RUTH HILL - Wellington
Last updated 05:00 02/05/2009

Wellington's child cancer service looks set to be permanently downgraded when its two specialists leave in August again forcing families to leave town for treatment.

Parents accuse hospital management of failing to keep promises made to the two paediatric oncologists husband and wife Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao who resigned in March, less than six months after arriving from Germany.

A national advisory group, made up of clinicians and managers from the country's three child cancer centres and Health Ministry officials, met in Wellington this week to discuss the unit's future. The group is expected to recommend scrapping advanced child cancer services in the capital.

Wellington has been under threat of losing its "tertiary" service for more than a decade because of successive resignations.

Liz Hesketh, who quit in 2007, said inadequate resourcing was putting patients at risk. After her departure, patients had to be sent away for treatment for 10 months until the new specialists arrived.

Figures provided to The Dominion Post show 42 families travelled to Auckland or Christchurch between December 2007 and October 2008.

Parents say Capital and Coast District Health Board has failed to keep promises to staff, including a child cancer unit and hiring extra support staff and nurses.

Olivia Utting, whose son Elijah, 5, suffers an aggressive form of leukaemia, said the two doctors had been "treated appallingly" by Capital and Coast. They learned that plans to build a new unit in the old Grace Neill Building had been abandoned only through an email newsletter sent to all staff.

Ms Utting said she asked health board bosses at a meeting with parents this week if they were willing to "put their hands up" and commit to making the service continue. No one was.

"I told them, `I don't trust any of you, you haven't done any of the things you said you would do and I don't believe everyone here wants it to work."'

She had felt "a little bit of hope" going into the meeting. "But now I just feel deflated. Their decision is going to affect my son and my family."

Elijah faces another 17 months' treatment. He was back in the isolation room at Wellington Children's Hospital this week after his temperature rose to 38 degrees.

"Everything affects him we are back in hospital every second week. I have 100 per cent confidence in Mwe Mwe and Christian, who are amazing doctors, but I'm frightened of what will happen when they go."

Health Minister Tony Ryall said he would be guided by experts' opinion about the safest way to provide child cancer services in Wellington.

"What the children and parents need is certainty and a safe and sustainable service. I can't imagine the awful stress they have been under with all the uncertainty in the last couple of years."

Capital and Coast child health manager Kaye Hudson said she was unable to comment on the resignations for privacy reasons, but she disputed claims that the board had not acted to meet clinicians' concerns. It had recently appointed a second day-stay nurse, was "actively pursuing further improvements" to the designated child cancer area and had agreed to an extra day a week for pharmacy.

She said "the challenges we face" were not about money, but about staffing and retention.