Critically ill children and their families who have traveled to Auckland for specialized treatment at Starship Hospital are dealing with additional stress due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Fourteen-year-old Eva is no stranger to Starship, having spent the first six years of her life living in the hospital.
His mother, Tiff McLeod, said that his current admission had been exhausting for different reasons, due to the additional restrictions from Covid-19.
“It’s literally exhausting trying to reach your son at times. When before, nothing could stop him, he could just walk through the door and get there.”
Eva was born with a huge hole in her diaphragm, which meant that her internal organs had pushed into the chest cavity and prevented her lungs from developing properly.
His last surgery was to repair the 75-degree curve in his spine, which threatened to crush his internal organs.
It was originally reserved for early last year, but was canceled multiple times during the pandemic.
McLeod is thankful that Eva was finally able to have surgery last month under alert level 3, not level 4, which would have meant that she would have been completely alone and unable to identify with her husband, who was caring for three other children.
“We feel lucky that Eva is leaving here.
“But there are children who probably won’t get out of here, who don’t have their families around, just their two parents or two caregivers or two nominees … and that’s horrible.
“It’s quite difficult to do this on your own without your support network around you.”
The clinical staff was “above and beyond” to support the families, he said.
“The nurses have been amazing. They are working through stressful times waiting for their whole world to collapse.
“They are working under tighter restrictions, they are constantly in PPE, they are working hundreds of hours and they are so supportive and friendly.”
Ronald McDonald House Charities offers comprehensive accommodation and support for families with sick children who have to travel to Christchurch, Wellington or Auckland.
Chief Executive Wayne Howett said the prolonged closure at Tāmaki Makaurau had created some significant logistical challenges for the organization.
“Families do not stop arriving just because there is a situation of confinement, and these families tend to be the most critical.
“But because of the way the bubble works, we can’t bring in those families to stay in the houses that we have in Auckland, so we relocate those families.”
The 13 family rooms within Starship have been off limits under lockdown.
Ronald McDonald’s two houses in Auckland, with 85 rooms, currently house just six families, while more than 60 families stay in motels and hotels with meals delivered.
“We’ve been recognized as an essential service, and yet we don’t get any additional funding attached for that, and right now, costs are skyrocketing,” Howett said.
The charity has also had to cancel many of its regular fundraising activities due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Starship pediatric surgeon Neil Price said the restrictions, necessary to keep the hospital running, were stressful on staff, patients and their families.
However, he was also concerned about the children who did not see.
These included boys with stomata after intestinal reconstructions, whose parents were left dealing with colostomy bags in the community, and male infants with undescended testicles, who ideally should be operated on before the age of one year.
“Once things are reopened, we will have a backlog to do. And some things will become urgent just because they have waited so long that we really want to fix things for that person so that everything is ready.”
But this was going to be difficult, he warned, because even before Covid-19, the healthcare system was stretched.
“If you don’t have the ability to rise and then you don’t have the ability to rebound, then you will have problems when these setbacks happen.
“We saw that with the strikes, we saw that with the RSV outbreak, which held up clinical care for a few weeks.
“We see that all the time.”
Pediatrician Renee Liang, who works in rural Northland, said children there have been losing basic services “for decades,” and that was only getting worse with the pandemic.
“Every time staff are moved to an urgently needed area, those people are removed from the jobs they normally do.
“And that comes in a context where they didn’t have enough resources or enough people to do that job in the first place.”
For example, in Northland, community nurses doing critical work with children with special needs had switched to the Covid-19 response, which meant that some children were unable to attend school and their parents were unable to work.
“Do you know that person on the ridge saying ‘The tsunami is coming’ and there are all these people having picnics on the beach? That’s what it feels like now,” Dr. Liang said.
“The crazy thing is that all the other beaches have already been affected by the tsunami.
“We know what is going to happen because it is right next door, what is going to happen to us in January is happening now in New South Wales.”
She said she was discouraged when she looked at the model.
“But then I talk to my patients and their families and I feel more optimistic that we will get to 90 percent vaccination and beyond and we will not see the health system overwhelmed and many people sick, we will not see the deaths.
“Many of my patients are under the age of 12 and many others have compromised immunity, which means that even though they are vaccinated, they need the people around them to be vaccinated to keep them safe.”