A few months from now I will be able to call myself an octogenarian! I am lucky to have reached this moniker in comparatively good health as I take only vitamin pills and, if I bend my knees, can still touch my toes.
My experience of the National Health Service in N.I. had been, until a few years ago, extremely good. Before, during and after the Troubles the service here was remarkable and, along with our doctors and nurses, deservedly lauded world-wide.
I lived under the impression this was still the case until about six years ago when I asked my GP if I could be referred to an orthopaedic surgeon as my shoulder, after a couple of years’ discomfort, was still giving me trouble. He smiled at me wanly and said yes, he would put me on the list but it would be at least three years before I could see a specialist. After that, it would probably be another long wait for treatment and would I like more pain killers? He didn’t say how long but it didn’t take me long to find out that it would be another three years. I would be in my mid-80s before I could have an operation if one were possible.
I wasn’t alone. A friend of a similar age with a chronically bad back (her spine was disintegrating, ‘a mess’ according to subsequent opinion) couldn’t even get a timeline! The surgeon she had been referred to was unable to even give her an approximate date. By this stage she was bent double with pain every five minutes – pain killers were becoming ineffective and making her ill. Her GP, like mine, had done all he could.
What was to be done? Both of us (fiercely independent) were facing painful deterioration in our later years with no hope in sight. Of course, there was private medicine. So, we both decided (funnily enough, independently) to spend our children’s inheritance and went for it. Two months later we were recovering and comparing our physiotherapy regimes…
I can’t speak for my friend but I am grateful and glad I had it done but no longer have any savings – no ‘rainy day’ cushion. The rain has come and – gone! My octogenarian ‘bash’ will have to be (hopefully) down the pub with a pint – bought by somebody else. I will certainly not have the necessary funds to replace my central heating boiler if required or fix the roof should it fall in.
During two days in a private clinic (whose manager was quoted in the Irish News as saying ‘The N.I. health service has the worst orthopaedic waiting list in the whole of Europe’), I came across anger. Scratch the surface of this conversation with any hospital worker – doctors, et al – and one hears hissed single words issued between clenched teeth accompanied by heavy sighs – ‘management’, ‘cuts’, ‘politics’. Being a non-political octogenarian potter (retired because of sore shoulder), I am innocent of the political manoeuvres of whole hospitals but can remember my utter amazement on visiting the brand new state of the art hospital in Downpatrick to find it like a ghost building. Then, a week later, visiting A&E in Lisburn to find it crammed to its ageing gills. I remember thinking something was definitely not right and then, I am ashamed to say, when I was well again, got on with my life.
‘There are not enough nurses.’ A surgeon explained. ‘Our government, the one on the hill, wouldn’t pay them parity with England and a lot of them went elsewhere. That’s the reason they went on strike – and I am not sure if they have even yet been given the raise they were promised.’ He went on to say they (the doctors) had been warning our ‘leaders’ about it for years. When I asked nurses about the situation they were reluctant to discuss it. They raised their eyes heavenward, looked briefly baleful and got on with what they are doing. The trouble is they love what they do (they wouldn’t do it otherwise) and don’t want to be disloyal – or something. What that ‘something’ is I do not know. Like looking for an answer to: How come when I say I’ll pay, I can have treatment within six weeks instead of six years?
Covid has brought to light many things that need addressing. Mr Hancock is saying the Health Service in England (he keeps saying ‘in England’, as if N.I. Scotland and Wales are of no concern to him) needs a thorough shake-up and re-organisation. There is no mention of any of that here in Northern Ireland…
After paying, in advance, for my operation I discovered I could have had it done in the South of Ireland and subsequently had half of the cost returned to me by the EEA arrangement with our Health and Social Care Board. This may be over now because of Brexit but why did nobody tell me about this at the time which was pre-Brexit? I have also learned that private clinics now organise loans. There appear to be many changes and growing needs out there. It would have been nice to have had some warning while I was still earning and could have put more money in my piggy bank.
I had reason to meet with two Para Medics one night a while ago and, after saving my life, (I wasn’t dying in fact but I thought I was) we began to chat. After eleven years in the job those brilliant people, who probably save hundreds of lives a year, have bad backs. One of them eventually got to see an orthopaedic surgeon who told him he could fix his back but if he wanted it to be done on the National Health he would have to wait – yes – three years. If he coughed up £20,000 he could have it done in – yes – six weeks.
A small footnote – doctors who left their usual posts to go to the City Hospital to do months of overtime in the Covid Intensive Care Unit have to pay £12.00 a day for car parking. They have not yet been paid for the exhausting and debilitating overtime they have done now for nearly a year. If there is nobody there to sort out these simple anomalies, what hope is there for the intricacies of managing our hospitals and the rest of what was, once upon a time, our wonderful health service?
Felicity was born in Cheshire in England in 1941. At the age of five she was dragged, kicking and screaming, to Northern Ireland where she (later) married, had a family and has been living ever since. Among other things, she has been a secretary, a BBC Radio reporter, a veterinary assistant, director of a local Saleroom (Temple Auctions), obtained a degree in Fine and Applied Art at the University of Ulster and has recently published her debut novel, “Days of Wine and Wardrobes”.
She now lives near Lisburn with her cat, Wudi.