8 February 2023

Fire-damaged Calvary Public Hospital theatres still offline with elective surgeries to be 'heavily impacted'

| Claire Fenwicke
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Elective surgeries at Calvary Public Hospital are likely to be impacted for several more months following an operating theatre fire. Photo: File.

Three of Calvary Public Hospital’s theatres will remain closed for months following a fire sparked by a piece of equipment in early December.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith informed the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday (7 February) that while three theatres had reopened in the past month – with a fourth expected to come back online next month – the remaining three still weren’t operational.

“The timeframe for reinstating the remaining three theatres, which were more significantly damaged from a combination of fire, water and smoke damage is unknown at this stage but is expected to be some months,” she said.

“Work is underway to bring a fourth theatre back online by March 2023, which was impacted primarily by water damage.”

A piece of equipment in theatre six of the public hospital’s operating theatre complex caught fire about 12:30 pm on 6 December, 2022.

Fortunately no surgery was underway in the Xavier Building theatre at the time and no one was injured.

About 30 patients near the theatre were impacted, with all staff, patients and visitors evacuated, while an emergency department and maternity bypass was put in place.

The fire was extinguished relatively quickly, however the spread of acidic smoke, water from the sprinkler system and other fire suppression meant there was significant damage.

Smoke contamination meant all seven theatre rooms needed to be closed, along with the sterile stockroom.

As a result, 106 elective surgical sessions were paused at the hospital between 6 December, 2022, and 17 January, 2023, while 1200 letters were sent to people waiting for category one and two surgeries to let them know their treatment was likely to be impacted.

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The three reopened theatres have been fitted with new high-efficiency particulate-absorbing (HEPA) filters, fully disinfected and had environmental air testing undertaken. One is operating as the sterile stockroom.

But Ms Stephen-Smith said elective surgery at the public hospital’s theatre complex would continue to be “heavily impacted” while the theatres were offline.

“This is an incredibly difficult time for staff and patients who have been impacted by the fire, which has come on the back of a number of years of disruption with the bushfires and significant impact of COVID-19,” she said.

“Calvary, CHS [Canberra Health Services] and the Health Directorate are working through detailed planning to increase capacity across all providers in the Territory and analysing the medium- and longer-term impacts.”

More than 90 category one elective surgeries were redirected to Calvary Bruce Private and Calvary John James where possible while the theatres were closed.

Ms Stephen-Smith said some of the public hospital staff had been onboarded to the private operating theatres, but acknowledged some found it “difficult and stressful” to work in new and different theatre environments on short notice, as well as suffering abuse from patients impacted by the changes.

“Sadly, there have been incidents of members of the public calling the staff at Calvary about their elective surgery and speaking with them in a manner that has been very distressing,” she said.

“As during the pandemic, we recognise that individuals will understandably be anxious, but we also need people to be mindful of the way in which they speak with our health workers who are doing their best to bring services back online as quickly as they can.”

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Ms Stephen-Smith said teams across Calvary and CHS were working to reschedule all category one and two patients impacted, with category one patients being prioritised.

“I understand this is a distressing time for many in our community and I would like to assure the public that our health services are working incredibly hard to minimise the impact on individuals who need those essential surgeries,” she said.

Ms Stephen-Smith also noted emergency surgery loads continued to be high at Canberra Hospital, with theatres operating for extended hours to try to manage the workload.

Other options to mitigate the impacts of the closures and deliver on elective surgery waiting list targets being considered by the health services and hospitals include scheduling additional surgeries at public and private providers on Saturdays where it can be resourced, and utilising other private hospitals and day hospitals across the border where clinically appropriate.

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I was supposed to have a procedure done there “within 3 months”. That was July 2022 but someone dropped the ball and didn’t send the paperwork to Calvary until October 31st which was about the time I was ringing and asking why I had heard nothing in that 3 months.

All sheduled in for 15th December but the fire happened. I was told that “no matter, it will be done at Calvary Private Hospital” That was wrong info.

I was told a couple of weeks ago that it was going to be done at a private practice once contracts have been signed. I’m not holding my breath.

The poor staff shouldn’t be getting abused as it’s not their fault they are being kept in the dark as much as the affected patients.

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