Since Alex Stosic’s heart failed in 2021, everyday tasks like waking up and getting dressed take hours and require a herculean effort.
- Mr Stosic is one of more than 87,000 people waiting for elective surgeries in Victoria
- Quarterly government statistics show the wait has stabilized despite a rise in emergency department presentations
- Ambulance Victoria faced its busiest quarter on record, for the third time in a row
For more than a year, the normally energetic 71-year-old Frankston man, who runs his own business with his wife, has been living with his heart only operating at a fifth of its usual capacity.
Earlier this year his surgery for a new valve was deemed semi-urgent, also known as category 2, which meant treatment was recommended within 90 days.
But he has been waiting more than 150 days.
Since his body shut down, Alex has lost more than 30 kilograms, is struggling to keep his small business running and has barely been able to see his grandkids, who live in regional Victoria.
“I can only take about 20 or 40 steps and I have to have a significant rest,” he said.
“Even working on the computer, I can really only do a few hours and then I have to have a rest.”
Normally Alex is on the tools in his small business, which specializes in removing scratches from surfaces like glass, but since he fell ill he has only been able to do accounts.
“It certainly limits my lifestyle and limits what I can do,” he said.
The poor state of Alex’s physical health has left him and his wife Maureen basically housebound, which has taken a heavy toll on his mental health and prevented him from seeing his three children and five grandkids as much as he used to.
In Victoria, elective surgery is defined as any necessary surgery that can be delayed for at least 24 hours.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, elective surgery has repeatedly been put on hold to help the state’s health system cope with an influx of cases, which has led to a backlog.
At the beginning of April, the Victorian government announced a $1.5 billion investment package to address that backlog, but as the most recent wave of Omicron ramped up, individual hospitals began deferring all but category 1 cases again.
The latest quarterly data, released today, shows that at the end of June 87,275 people were on the waiting list, slightly down from the three months earlier.
That is due in part to the more than 41,000 elective surgeries conducted during the quarter, almost 50 per cent more than the previous three months.
But the waitlist is dramatically higher — about 21,000 people more — than the same time a year earlier.
And while the hospital waitlist showed small signs of stabilization, other areas of the health system were put under increasing pressure.
Busiest quarter in Ambulance Victoria during ‘unprecedented’ demand
The three-monthly data, released by the government a week later than expected, showed hospital emergency department presentations had risen by 5.1 per cent in the three months to June 30.
That took the number to 486,701 emergency presentations, an increase of more than 23,000 on the last quarter.
The surge is being attributed to a number of factors, including deferred care from lockdowns and a more severe influenza season than previous years.
“What we are seeing in Victoria at the moment is unprecedented demand,” Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said.
The average stay in hospital also rose, with sicker patients staying in beds for longer.
For the third quarter in a row, Ambulance Victoria experienced its busiest three months on record.
Urgent code 1 call-outs rose to 97,982, up by nearly 5,000 on the previous quarter. That’s 16 per cent more than the same period a year earlier.
Only about 64 per cent of those urgent code-1 cases were responded to within the benchmark 15 minutes, a drop on last quarter.
The pressure has led to at least seven code red escalations being called in as many months, in comparison to the nine called between 2017 and 2021.
Authorities have continued to urge Victorians to save triple-0 for emergencies only, with Ambulance Victoria saying about 500 callers each day did not need paramedics.
The Health Minister thanked paramedics, healthcare workers and those in the hospital system for their work during a time when up to 2,000 hospital staff are furloughed each day.
“This is our third COVID winter,” Ms Thomas said.
“All winters are hard in our hospital system, but indeed this winter has proven particularly challenging.”
A study published in June showed deadly ambulance ramping was already on the rise before the pandemic hit.
The Opposition has criticized the government for the delay in releasing the statistics and called for more to be done to address problems within the system.
“This isn’t just because of COVID,” Shadow Health Minister Georgie Crozier said.
“It’s years of under-investment and mismanagement by the Andrews Labor government.”
The government has announced a suite of measures as part of its $12 billion pandemic repair plan, including the expansion of virtual EDs, new paramedics and the overhaul of the crisis-riddled triple-0 system.
Alfred among hospitals restricting operations due to Omicron wave
The Alfred Hospital, where Alex Stosic is due to be treated, put out a statement in mid-July saying that because of the winter wave of Omicron, it was making operational changes such as deferring some elective surgeries and procedures.
It was one of a number of health services across the state to implement similar measures.
“It should never have got to this,” the opposition’s Ms Crozier said.
“These are huge numbers of Victorians who are waiting for this vital surgery, and while they’re waiting, they’re waiting in pain.”
Despite the way the wait has been affecting his life, Alex described his attitude as “stoic.”
“Provided I readjust my whole lifestyle, I can cope,” he said.
“I feel there’s people there who are probably worse off than me who have contracted COVID and need ventilators — I don’t need a ventilator.”
The keyhole surgery he requires is relatively new, meaning only a handful of surgeons are able to perform it.
In the meantime, Alex said he was not able to do much except wait for the phone call about the surgery likely to put his life back on track.
He said he was extremely grateful to the paramedics, doctors and other healthcare workers who saved his life and stabilized his organs after his body first shut down last year, and was trying to remain patient.
“I’ve always had an attitude that you can play the cards that you’re dealt with and they’re the only cards you can play,” he said.
“I’ve been dealt these cards so I just have to play them.
“The only thing I can do is live a fairly sedentary, restricted life and hope that somehow we get the hospital system and COVID under control so I can get in there and get my operation.”