N.S. man died awaiting surgery delayed by pandemic. His widow is 'angry at the system'

Gay Clarke wipes away tears when talking about her late husband. Mark Clarke died in February awaiting heart surgery that was delayed by the pandemic.  (Patrick Callaghan - image credit)
Gay Clarke wipes away tears when talking about her late husband. Mark Clarke died in February awaiting heart surgery that was delayed by the pandemic. (Patrick Callaghan - image credit)

Gay Clarke keeps wondering why things didn't happen differently.

"I did all the what-ifs," she said.

She and her husband, Mark Clarke, lived in Kentville, N.S., until his death at the age of 66 in February.

Mark died the day before he was supposed to have cardiac surgery that had already been delayed due to a lack of available ICU beds, Gay said.

The doctor was afraid Mark would contract COVID-19 if he stayed in the hospital, she said.

"COVID probably would have been better than what happened," Gay said.

She said the entire process was gruelling. Mark first went to the doctor with chest pain in July 2021.

Gay said months went by without hearing back from the doctor. Her husband called again in November as the pain got worse.


He had to wait until January for another test that revealed he had two blockages and urgently needed surgery, Gay said.

She said they didn't hear from a doctor for another two weeks and the procedure was scheduled for a month after that.

Mark didn't make it that long. He suffered a fatal heart attack at home.

"I'm angry at the system," Gay said. "This should not have happened."

Surgeons are 'morally distressed'

Dr. Gregory Hirsch, the senior medical director of the surgical services network for Nova Scotia Health, said he anticipated the strain the pandemic put on the health-care system could have tragic results.

Hirsch said the biggest challenges to getting surgeries done on time have been a lack of hospital beds and having support staff like nurses pulled away to COVID-19 units.

A common reason they can't get a case done is there isn't an ICU bed available for the patient to recover, said Hirsch, who specializes in surgery of vital organs in the chest.

"We're doing everything we humanly can," he said.

"But you get checkmated if there's not beds and not [health-care] human resources."


There are 107 people currently scheduled for cardiac surgery in Nova Scotia, according to the health authority. That's up from 82 in February 2020 before the pandemic hit — a 33 per cent increase.

Hirsch said that's putting even more pressure on a system that didn't have adequate capacity before COVID.

He said doctors continue to be concerned about patients waiting at home for care.

"Although we work very hard to triage and to do this dance so there would be no deaths and no adverse consequences, we knew there would be and there have been," he said.

"It's not too much to say we're morally distressed. It creates a great deal of anxiety that we can't provide the timely care we need to."

'Synonymous with community'

Mark Clarke was a prominent member of his community.

He was the president of the Kentville Lions Club when he died. He organized "jam sessions" at local events and performed for residents of long-term care facilities across the Annapolis Valley. He was active as an organizer in local politics.

"Mark was loved by everybody," Gay said, noting so many people called in the weeks following his death that she eventually unplugged the phone.

"He was the most understanding, caring, loving man I've ever come across and he was genuine. And I think people saw that."

Kings-Hants MP Kody Blois stood in the House of Commons in Ottawa the day after Mark died to celebrate who he called his friend.

"He was well known, well liked and well respected," Blois said to Parliament.

Blois told his colleagues that the first meeting he had to discuss running for federal politics was at the Clarke home.

"There's not too many people in that Kenvtille-New Minas area that wouldn't have known the name Mark Clarke," Blois said. "He was synonymous with community."

Broken system

Gay Clarke, now living in New Minas, takes things day by day. Some days, or months, are harder than others, she said.

"May was a rough month," she said. "It was my birthday, our wedding anniversary, Mother's Day, the first day of camping — and we were big campers."

She said Mark wouldn't have wanted her to focus on the negatives, but she can't help herself sometimes.

Nova Scotia's heath-care system is broken, Gay said, and she doesn't have any faith it'll be fixed.

"I don't know what the answer is and I don't think anybody does."