3-year-old’s delayed cleft palate surgery ‘heartbreaking’ says mom told it’s non-urgent

Andrea Gerardi has been waiting nearly two years for her son to get a surgery that she says would improve his quality of life, but like many others across the province it’s been pushed to an unknown date due to the pandemic.

On Jan. 3, the provincial government mandated that hospitals cancel all non-urgent surgeries in preparation for a spike in Omicron cases. This is the third time since March 2020 that an indefinite postponement on non-urgent medical surgeries has been put in place by the government. 

The pause has yet again left many in the dark of when they can expect to get treated, including Gerardi’s three-year-old son, Marco, who was born with a submucous cleft palate. 

The condition, according to the Windsor, Ont. mother, has left a hole in the back of Marco’s throat — one that is not visible from the outside. She said this has impacted the way he talks and sleeps, and it has left him with a cough and a constant runny nose. 

“This has been quite the ordeal and you can imagine as a parent how frustrating it is to hear the words ‘non-urgent’ when a surgery impacts the quality of life for your kid,” she said. 

If children aren’t progressing normally as in their cohorts … there can be profound developmental dysfunction, mental dysfunction,– Dr. David Price, president, Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons

“I’m just extremely sad and I’m extremely frustrated for my son, because he can’t communicate as efficiently as I think he would if he had that surgery. There’s nothing more heartbreaking I think for a parent who knows that there’s a solution out there and it’s just out of reach, because of something that is so out of our control.” 

Though Gerardi knew about Marco’s condition in 2019, it took nearly two years for her to get an appointment with a specialist in London. 

Following his September 2021 appointment with the specialist, Marco’s surgery was booked for Dec. 22. The surgery would repair the hole in his throat and put tubes in his ears. 

But two days before, he tested positive for COVID-19.

Marco Gerardi was born with a submucous cleft palate, which means he has a hole in the back of his throat. The condition impacts his speech and sleep, and causes him to cough and have a constant runny nose. (Submitted by Andrea Gerardi)

In January, when Gerardi called the surgeon’s office to reschedule, they said it wasn’t possible as all non-urgent surgeries had been cancelled. 

“I definitely think [this surgery] is essential … this surgery should have been done a lot sooner than it is being done, now my son’s chances for success [post-surgery] is 70 per cent as opposed to a higher success rate because we waited,” she said. 

Gerardi added that Marco also has a developmental delay — which impacts his speech — but doctors have told her that on top of speech therapy, the surgery “is a big piece of the puzzle.”

Long waitlists across country for pediatric surgeries

Dr. David Price, president of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons, told CBC News that surgical cancellations for pediatric patients can significantly impact development. 

He said there’s been a lot of thought given to when a surgery should be performed on a child and how long they can wait for the procedure in order for the patient to have the best outcome. 

“During these slowdowns, [those timelines are] often thrown out,” he said. 

“If children aren’t progressing normally as in their cohorts or getting their appropriate care at the same time there can be profound developmental dysfunction, mental dysfunction … The next thing we have to remember is when are talking about these youngsters … we are doing things that affect their life, development and personality and behaviour for another 80 years.” 

Dr. David Price is the president of the Canadian Association of Pediatric Surgeons. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Due to COVID-19, Price said he knows that in many places across the country, there are people waiting one to two years for procedures to be done. 

“We are going to see the consequences of them. There is a tremendous effort amongst the practitioners in these hospitals to mitigate those consequences, but we can only do so much if we’re not doing it ideally in the first place,” he said. 

For now, Gerardi said she doesn’t know when the surgery will take place or if she’ll even be prioritized when appointments start to get rebooked. 

She said she hopes Marco can get the surgery well below he starts school in September. 

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