Henry Vandenheuvel has been a fighter since his cancer diagnosis three years ago.
The 83-year-old, a longtime volunteer driver with the Canadian Cancer Society, has fought the disease valiantly, with the support of his family.
But his family said they feared for him after he experienced complications last month, as they allege he was put into the wrong ward at Southlake Regional Health Centre — a ward under COVID-19 lockdown that kept him temporarily separated from familial support.
“My Opa is a family man,” his grandaughter, Mishayla Vandenheuvel, said. “I’m very confident having his family around him while he’s been in hospital has been a driving force in his health improving.
‘We know their backs are against the wall,” she added about hospital workers. “We know it’s hard. We know nurses are trying, but we just need to shed light on this … Putting a bed in a hallway is better than putting him in a ward with COVID.”
The elder Vandenheuvel’s latest medical journey began when he went into Sunnybrook Hospital for a liver resection Nov. 7, his family said.
Afterwards, the Alliston resident was diagnosed with post-operative cognitive disorder, which can leave patients delirious and confused after surgery. Soon after getting discharged, he fell ill again Nov. 23 and was taken by ambulance to Sunnybrook Hospital before being transported Southlake.
He was in the ICU at Southlake, with family there with him constantly. His daughter, Barbara Pagliaroli, said end-of-life care was discussed, but her father fought through it.
“My Dad told them that unless he was going to be a vegetable in the corner, he wanted them to do everything they could do. He wasn’t ready to go,” she said.
But on Dec. 2, the family said Southlake transferred him from the ICU to a neurological rehabilitation ward, which they were told was under lockdown from a COVID-19 outbreak. The family said they were not properly informed that he was going to a part of the hospital where they could not visit him.
“They moved me from the penthouse to the broom closet,” Mishayla Vandenheuvel quoted her ailing grandfather.
Over the weekend, she said the family struggled to get clarity and response about the circumstances.
“I’m tired of seeing my Mum and my Grandma have to deal with the bureaucracy of the hospital and being told what is what, without having any proper information,” Vandenheuvel said. “He did not have COVID when they moved him. My fear is he is going to contract COVID now and he is obviously severely immunocompromised.”
NewmarketToday described the story the family told in a request for comment from Southlake. The hospital did not directly address the patient in its email response but stated a patient would only be transferred to a ward with COVID-19 due to capacity issues, as it is currently operating at over 100 per cent capacity throughout the hospital.
“When a COVID-19 outbreak is declared following two or more linked cases identified within a specified area, Southlake’s Infection Prevention and Control team immediately initiates control measures to protect all staff and patients on impacted units,” the hospital said. “Incoming patient transfers to impacted units only occur as a last resort on the advice of care teams, without which we would be unable to meet the growing patient demand from our community.”
York Region's COVID-19 tracking website lists five COVID-19 outbreaks declared at Southlake facilities since Nov. 24, involving a total of 24 cases and no deaths.
Southlake has struggled with capacity, which has prompted it to plan to for a second hospital site to meet the needs of the growing community. While Southlake is a top hospital in the province for emergency wait times for first assessment (about 36 minutes), wait times to get admitted to a hospital from emergency can be 18.9 hours due to crowding issues.
After a difficult weekend, the family said things improved Monday. The family alleged that Vandenheuvel was put into the neurological rehabilitation unit incorrectly due to "doctor confusion" and was subsequently transported to a surgical ward. The family was able to visit him again, just in time for the birthday of his wife, Kathryn Vandenheuvel, on Dec. 4.
He “finally was given the proper doctor, which is the most important thing,” Pagliaroli said. “I don’t know why everything happened so quickly … but they have fixed it.
“The hospital is overworked, overwhelmed and understaffed, and that’s how these mistakes happen,” she added.
Pagliaroli said her father is getting the care he needs now, but she is not sure that would have happened without the family constantly messaging the hospital.
“The nurses here are overrun, and family members need to be here to advocate,” she said. “My heart breaks for families or patients that don’t have a family to advocate for them.”
She added that what happened is a sign of the state of the healthcare system.
“Our government, Ontario or federal, needs to help. They need nurses, they need doctors,” she said.