03/18/2020 14:37 EDT | Updated 03/19/2020 14:26 EDT

Elective Surgeries Cancelled During Coronavirus Pandemic Put Canadians At Risk

Elective surgeries are defined as "non-urgent" procedures that are scheduled in advance.

Theron Pierce, left, and Kate Welsh both had their elective surgeries cancelled as hospitals prepare for more cases of COVID-19.

TORONTO — A one-hour surgery is all it would take to find out if the high level of abnormal cells in Theron Pierce’s cervix are cancerous. 

But Pierce got a call from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont. this week, indefinitely cancelling the “elective” procedure scheduled for Friday. Hospitals are working to open up enough beds for the inevitable rise in COVID-19 cases, said Pierce, who uses they/them pronouns. 

“I understand the need,” the 29-year-old told HuffPost Canada. “It’s just a very stressful situation. I’m feeling quite scared.”

Some provinces have directed hospitals to cancel elective surgeries to free up resources to cope with the growing number of COVID-19 cases, and to prevent transmission. 

Elective surgeries aren’t necessarily optional, but rather are scheduled in advance because they’re considered “non-urgent,” and can include cancer-related procedures or operations to address blood vessel problems. 

Watch: Canadians need to act now to curb spread of COVID-19, say officials. Story continues below.


Ontario has been diligently monitoring and taking decisive action to contain the spread of this new virus and ensure the province’s health-care system is ready for any scenario. At the same time, we must also carefully consider how to best maximize resources and prioritize services.” said Ontario Minister of Health Christine Elliott in a statement Sunday.

“The province is requesting that all hospitals further implement pandemic plans by carefully ramping down elective surgeries and other non-emergent clinical activities.” 

Initially, Pierce thought their surgery wouldn’t be affected. They have a family history of similar diagnoses: their aunt died of ovarian cancer, their mother has endometriosis. They also have a five-year history of “inconclusive” Pap tests, signalling potential abnormal cell growth.

Pierce’s latest Pap smear last month revealed severe dysplasia (cells that have abnormally developed within tissues or organs) and they could have carcinoma in situ — “a very early stage of cancer,” according to the Canadian Cancer Society

After this story initially came out, Pierce’s gynecologist got in touch with them about future options, which helped ease their anxiety. 

“But in the moment of the cancellation, days before the surgery, it seemed overwhelming and hard to process, despite me knowing logically it was necessary for public health.” 

Kate Welsh, 31, has been waiting for a life-changing surgery for a year and a half. That’s not happening anymore. The Toronto disability activist was scheduled to have a peroral endoscopic myotomy at St. Michael’s Hospital to treat achalasia, a condition that  affects the ability of the muscle connecting the esophagus to the stomach to open. That leads to a backup of food in the esophagus. 

Welsh has had achalasia for the last 10 years, and now eats mostly liquids like soup. She is slowly losing weight and spends a lot of time trying to get nutrients into her body.

The surgery would mean “I could actually eat, and gain weight and help me with all different parts of my life,” she said. 

Andrew Francis Wallace/Getty Images
Paramedics transport a patient to the Toronto General Hospital on March 9, 2020.

Expecting weeks of recovery from the now-cancelled surgery, Welsh had put work on hold, and now is concerned about what she’ll do financially. “The uncertainty is the most worrisome part,” she said. 

Welsh is currently self-isolating, even from her partner, as she’s concerned she is at a high risk of developing severe symptoms if she contracted COVID-19. 

“I’m significantly worried,” Welsh said. But she’s also hopeful that the world learns from the pandemic and becomes more accommodating for people with disabilities. 

“It isn’t that hard — people are taking virtual classes and working from home — so why haven’t we been doing it?” 

Welsh is hopeful she will eventually get a new date for the surgery. In the meantime, she’s filling her days with virtual hangouts with friends and taking her dogs for solitary walks in the sun. 

Update: Theron Pierce has received an update from their doctor, which was added to the story.