This surgery saved Alexia’s life. Labor’s ‘backflip’ could end it at Randwick

This surgery saved Alexia’s life. Labor’s ‘backflip’ could end it at Randwick

September 7, 2023

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Families whose children have been treated for life-threatening conditions at the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick say the state government has backflipped on its support for heart surgery at the hospital, as long-running tensions within the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network threaten to re-escalate.

Health Minister Ryan Park wrote to doctors at the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick (SCH) in July to confirm only low-complexity cardiac surgery would be permitted at the hospital, while high and medium-complexity heart surgeries – including cardiac bypass – would continue to be performed at the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Debbie Issi with her daughter Alexia, who is recovering from lung and heart surgery at the Sydney Children’s Hospital at RandwickCredit: Janie Barrett

Families and doctors at SCH have written to the health minister saying the decision contradicted Labor’s support for cardiac services while in opposition, and reversed a commitment by the previous Coalition government to restore cardiac services – including elective bypass surgery – at the hospital.

Elective cardiac bypass surgery has not been conducted at SCH since 2018, but doctors at the hospital told the minister that without regularly performing the procedure, its cardiac unit would lose the expertise needed to deliver extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a different procedure where an artery and a vein are connected to a machine that cycles oxygen back into the blood, temporarily relieving the heart and lungs of critically ill patients.

Jess Low, whose son Cooper spent 276 days at SCH with inflammation of the heart, led a 2019 petition to reinstate cardiac services at the hospital that was signed by more than 60,000 people. In 2021, Coogee MP Marjorie O’Neill invited the Low family to sit in the gallery while she addressed the issue in parliament, saying there was “absolutely no reason that lower-level bypass surgery should not be able to be operated at both” Randwick and Westmead.

Jess and Peter Low spent most of 2016 at the Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick with son Cooper, who contracted myocarditis 10 days after birth.

Park, then the opposition health spokesman, commended O’Neill for her advocacy, saying it was “now time to have these services delivered back to this world-class hospital”.

Low said she was heartbroken to learn medium complexity surgeries, including cardiac bypass, would not be reinstated at the hospital despite Labor’s previous support.

“To use our story and then do a backflip, it’s disappointing,” she said.

Park did not respond to questions. Instead, a government spokesman said the minister was “continuing existing arrangements” put in place by the previous Coalition government.

“There is no change or reversal of arrangements as has been erroneously suggested.”

O’Neill said maintaining ECMO services has “always been the highest priority” and she had recently met with senior health staff at SCH and the Royal Women’s Hospital.

“I have been reassured by senior health staff that this critical service continues to be available at Sydney Children’s Hospital,” she said.

The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network and the health minister both said there has been no change to cardiac services at Randwick and Westmead.

“I said goodbye to my daughter – twice … They don’t have the right to make that decision without speaking to parents who’ve been through it.”

Heart surgery has been a longstanding source of friction since the two hospitals amalgamated into the Sydney Children’s Hospital Network in 2010.

Cardiac surgeons at Westmead argue patient outcomes would be vastly improved if surgical resources were pooled at one hospital, rather than splintered across two locations.

Doctors at Randwick argue losing complex cardiac surgery would compromise other services, limit their ability to recruit and train high-quality staff and effectively signal the end of their status as a comprehensive tertiary hospital.

Dr Peter Borzi, president of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Paediatric Surgeons, said putting children on ECMO required the skills of a cardiac surgeon who would be able to access vessels through the heart if needed.

“It’s not something that we [general paediatric surgeons] would have the skills to do,” he said. “Is there a paediatric hospital in Australia that offers ECMO without a cardiac surgeon available? No, there’s not.”

Debbie Issi, whose eight-year-old daughter Alexia spent five days on ECMO at the hospital while fighting a streptococcal infection, said she did not feel the minister had listened to their concerns about declining cardiac resources at SCH.

“I said goodbye to my daughter – twice,” she said. “They don’t have the right to make that decision without speaking to parents who’ve been through it.”

Now recovering and itching to get back to school, Alexia said she wants to become a heart surgeon and work in the cardiac department at SCH.

“The hospital means a lot to me – they saved my life.”

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