Author: Joanna Frketich
Donna Thombs has not uttered a word in five long months.
The east Hamilton senior is desperate to get her voice back, but has so far faced a waiting list with no room for compassion at St. Joseph’s hospital.
“It’s terrible,” mouths Thombs. “They don’t care.”
The only sound is wheezing as she attempts to talk with gestures along with slowly mouthing out words using exaggerated movements. It takes multiple attempts to get across even the simplest words. Often, she shakes her head and just gives up.
“Try not talking for one day,” she mouths. “I’ve done it for months. Now, it’s really starting to get to me.”
Thombs says the surgical procedure essential to giving her a voice takes roughly 20 minutes. She came achingly close when it was scheduled for Aug. 26, only to have it cancelled.
As of Friday, Thombs had been given no information by the office of head and neck surgeon Dr. Michael Gupta on how much longer she’d have to wait.
She’d been told her case was a low priority despite the safety concerns of a woman in her 80s living alone with no voice to call for help. Her relatives phone to check on her but her only way to communicate with them is to knock once to let them know she is well or twice if she needs them to come and help her out.
“I feel horrible she’s had to go through that kind of wait,” said Anne Marie MacDonald, director of surgery at St. Joseph’s. “We should have done better for this lady.”
MacDonald says she only became aware of Thombs’ plight after being contacted by The Spectator. She says she’s now working with the surgeon to get the procedure done “expeditiously.”
“It’s important to express our apologies,” she said. “We’ll be working with Dr. Gupta’s office to facilitate something to happen for her as soon as possible.”
It all started when Thombs was diagnosed with throat cancer in January. She had to go through a laryngectomy which removed all of her voice box and left her breathing through a hole in her throat.
Initially, she was expected to have received a tracheoesophageal voice prosthesis, a device that produces a sound source for the voice so she could speak again, by the end of May.
But a key tube that keeps open a space for the device to be put in fell out on a Saturday in May. Thombs said she had not been instructed on what to do if the tube fell out or told it would be an emergency that needed immediate treatment.
She was not in any pain or medical distress so she waited to call the surgeon’s office when it opened again on Monday. By that time the space had closed, requiring a surgical procedure to reopen it.
She has been waiting for that procedure ever since. She says every time she calls she’s told that the surgeon only has a limited amount of operating room time and it all goes to urgent cancer patients.
St. Joseph’s does have one of the shortest waits in the province for head and neck cancer surgery, with patients waiting far below the provincial target in the Ministry of Health’s public report for May to July.
“Our head and neck cancer physicians work hard to have patients wait the minimal time we can manage,” said MacDonald. “The surgeons themselves in their offices prioritize in order of acuity.”
But MacDonald said a “rare complication” like Thombs’ should have been given a higher priority.
Thombs said she’s been shocked by the “world of discrimination” she has faced since losing her voice. She says people treat her like she is “stupid” when she communicates at stores or the bank with handwritten notes.
“If they don’t do it soon, I’m going across the border,” she mouthed. “I’ll pay for it myself.”