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Matthew Frazer, Christina Flint-Frazer, Olivia Fraser, 5-years-old and Sam Frazer 2-year-old are seen outside their Toronto home on May 29.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

When Sam Frazer was 15 months old he started walking with a slight limp. Last August, Sam, who is now 2, was sent for an X-ray at SickKids Hospital, which showed he had a dislocated hip and would need surgery for hip dysplasia. “Out of the cases of hip dysplasia, Sam’s is considered severe,” his mother, Christina Flint-Frazer, said. “We were told the ideal surgical window would be around three months from mid-December, but this was before Omicron.”

Since December, Sam has been on a waiting list for surgery now more than two months past the ideal window. “We want the best for our son but as parents it’s incredibly stressful to just wait and not know and leave the fate of your child in someone else’s hands,” Ms. Flint-Frazer said.

At Toronto’s SickKids Hospital, the scheduled surgery wait-list for children has grown to 5,600 patients since 2020. Despite the fact that children’s hospitals are beginning to move back to full operation, as pandemic restrictions are lifted, these wait-lists continue to grow. Wait-lists and backlogs have always been an issue in Canada, though they have been magnified by the pandemic.

“We got back to doing the same number of surgeries as we did before the pandemic and despite that, wait-lists have gone up 12 per cent,” said Simon Kelley, associate chief of perioperative services at SickKids. “The surgical wait-list and backlog is not just a COVID-19 problem, but COVID-19 definitely is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Dr. Kelley said children who need orthopedic, urology and reconstructive surgeries are amongst those most likely to be put on wait-lists. These are also the surgeries that should be done within a three- or six-month window. But, because of wait-lists, most of these surgeries are being pushed back and many are missing their ideal window.

Pediatric hospitals in other provinces are also seeing similar trends as hospitals across the country are grappling with backlogs from the pandemic. In Manitoba, provincial data show wait-lists are increasing for MRIs and ultrasounds. In British Columbia, wait-lists have been on the rise since 2020. These wait-lists may also lead to long-term challenges, especially for time-sensitive surgeries.

“If you’re not able to time scheduled surgeries with the correct milestones, then you miss that opportunity,” Dr. Kelley said. “You can’t turn back the clock on development.”

For hip dysplasia surgery, Dr. Kelley said usually it is a one-and-done for many children. But, “the later you do it, the more likely that you would need to do subsequent and further surgeries to see if there’s any growth issues,” he added.

Ms. Flint-Frazer said she is “very concerned with the long-standing issues” and pain that Sam might face in the future if he is kept on the wait-list longer. In the midst of all this, Sam was also diagnosed with autism, which adds another layer to waiting, Ms. Flint-Frazer said. “It’s just been a long period of anxiety.”

In Ontario, the Children’s Health Coalition, which represents a number of hospitals and children’s health organizations, is calling for increased funding and awareness regarding the repercussions of wait-lists on children’s health care.

“The pandemic was really difficult on children’s health,” said Bruce Squires, president of McMaster Children’s Hospital, where nearly 62 per cent of children on wait-lists have been waiting beyond the recommended surgery timeline.

He added that “more than 4,200 surgeries were cancelled in the first 15 months of the pandemic and additional cancellations have happened over the course of the Omicron wave.” But wait-lists have been an issue even before COVID-19.

“We already had quite a significant wait-list for children’s health care services before the pandemic started,” Mr. Squires said. This has a lasting impact on children – and their families.

“Being able to actively participate in school, to play sports, to interact with friends, to feel comfortable in social situations, these are all things that are disrupted when you’re waiting for health care,” he said.

As for Sam, Ms. Flint-Frazer said, “He just finds his own way of doing everything and gets in trouble just like any other kid would.” But, she said, a lot of things remain on hold for the family as they wait for surgery.

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