By KATHERINE NEWTON - The Dominion Post
Families and staff at Wellington Hospital's embattled child cancer service have been given hope after the unit's remaining specialist extended her contract.
American locum Sarah Strandjord has been the sole paediatric oncologist at Wellington Hospital since husband and wife team Christian Kratz and Mwe Mwe Chao left in August.
The pair's resignations in April sparked a downgrade of the unit to a secondary service until at least the end of 2010 – meaning children needing acute care had to travel to Auckland or Christchurch for treatment.
Dr Strandjord was due to leave the unit this month, but will now stay until at least April next year.
Children and their families will still have to travel for diagnosis and acute treatment, but in most cases will receive follow-up care in Wellington.
Through a Capital and Coast District Health Board spokesman, Dr Strandjord said she had "discovered many excellent services and people" at the hospital and was pleased to be staying longer.
Tony Wood, whose son Joshua, 13, has acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, said the news was "just fantastic".
"Everybody from early on realised how important and pivotal she was to maintaining some form of care there – and how good she was.
"She gives us enormous confidence."
Mr Wood was also impressed with the support the family received when they travelled to Starship children's hospital for week-long acute treatment twice this year.
Joshua "hated the entire week", but free flights to Auckland, taxi chits, grocery vouchers and being able to contact a Capital and Coast staff member at all times helped make the time away from home easier, Mr Wood said.
John Robson, chairman of the Child Cancer Foundation's central division, was delighted by Dr Strandjord's contract extension.
The region's child cancer service had been a "jumbled-up jigsaw" for years, he said. "Sarah's always been that piece we couldn't find. If she wasn't going to stay we were in a really difficult position."
Mr Robson was keen to "keep the pressure on" the district health board to ensure the unit's long-term future.
Health Minister Tony Ryall announced last week that a new National Health Board to be set up by Christmas would take over national funding and planning of specialist services, including paediatric oncology.
Mr Robson said it was not clear yet what effect that would have on Wellington Hospital's child cancer service. "The fact that the ministry is naming it as a service that's important is hugely positive."