Cardiac centre heartbreak - Bungling by local technocrats stalls construction at Bustamante hospital as 400 children wait for critical surgeries
Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
The fate of between 200 and 400 children suffering with heart problems and waiting anxiously for life-saving surgery is hanging in the balance as completion of the region's first paediatric cardiac centre at the Bustamante Hospital for Children has been stalled. The Sunday Gleaner has learnt that the tardiness of the Government, a tussle between one of the major donors and technocrats, as well as a severe cash crunch are impairing the efforts of generous donors that have teamed up to construct the multimillion-dollar facility.
This has left between 200 and 400 ailing children on the waiting list for heart surgeries in limbo, as the long-promised centre was expected to speed up the rate at which these children would be operated on.
"I hope the matter is remedied quickly," cardiologist and consultant physician, Dr Knox Hagley, told The Sunday Gleaner.
"There are various grades of severity of the illnesses faced by these children and they can be kept in fairly good health by medication and constant monitoring, but the surgery is what is needed to correct the problem," added Hagley.
But several surgeries will have to be delayed as work has been stalled on the construction of the facility for nearly three months.
Construction of the state-of-the-art paediatric cardiac centre is being designed to offer full surgical and after-care service with a 10-bed intensive care unit, operating theatre and catheter lab. It is also to offer specialised training for surgeons, nurses and other paediatric cardiac personnel, as well as conduct research and serve the wider Caribbean.
Construction of the facility was initially scheduled to be completed in March of this year but could now stretch into next year.
Chairman of the Bustamante Hospital for Children, Kenny Benjamin, and Samantha Chantrelle, head of the Digicel Foundation, one of the major stakeholders in the project, last week confirmed that work had been shut down as funds had dried up.
They, however, expressed optimism that a resolution will shortly be reached that would enable the unit to be operational by next January.
At the same time, one of the major overseas donors has lost patience with the South East Health Regional Authority (SERHA) and has urged Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson to remove responsibility of the facility from that body.
The donors are tight-lipped on an alleged impasse between a senior board member of SERHA and one of the donor agencies, while Ferguson was not available when The Sunday Gleaner attempted to reach him.
Highly placed sources disclosed that it was the tardiness of the Government that initially triggered mounting cost overruns that have left the donors scrambling for funds.
Digicel Jamaica, one of four major donors, had initially pumped $100 million into the project as a goodwill gesture on the occasion of its 10th anniversary in Jamaica.
Sagicor, the Shaggy Foundation and Chain of Hope, a group of foreign-based stakeholders who have been performing open-heart surgery at the Arthur Wint Drive-based institution, are also significant contributors.
The Sunday Gleaner was told that over the years, medical professionals from the United Kingdom-based Chain of Hope have been hampered in their efforts due to inadequate space, as all elective surgeries have had to be cancelled to accommodate the open-heart surgeries.
A well-needed Cath Lab to facilitate heart surgery was planned for the cardiac centre as there is none in the island at present. It's understood that the facility at the University Hospital of the West Indies is more than 20 years old and malfunctioning.
It was within this context that Digicel Jamaica and other entities decided to finance the project in 2011.
However, it was not until nearly two years later, in February 2013, that ground was broken by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, creating massive escalations in the price of building materials and other items.
While admitting there were some issues, Chantrelle declined to comment on the ongoing impasse between a senior board member of SERHA and one of the donors that has been reported to be frustrating overseas missions.
When pressed, Chantrelle conceded that massive changes and delays had sent the cost of the project spiralling to $147 million, and that forced the stakeholders to enter discussions with the National Health Fund.
She said Digicel Jamaica had donated the $100 million, but with costs escalating, the project was turned over to the foundation.
"At the time the estimate was $100 million; however, when we sent out tender the estimate was $168 million, with the lowest being $147 million to construct the shell of the building," said Chantrelle.
She said Sagicor, the Shaggy Foundation and Chain of Hope then came on board and the Digicel Foundation was appointed project manager. "Once we started to work and looked at the architectural drawings, we found out that the architectural designs were not comprehensive enough."
Benjamin told The Sunday Gleaner that the Cath Lab has been secured and other equipment for the cardiac unit has also been secured. But, insiders said millions of dollars are still needed to complete the facility to international standards.