With a heartfelt plea of despair, Collette Mullan, mother to a four-year-old boy bearing complex medical needs, voiced her fears of her child potentially succumbing to his ailments while on a waitlist for critical surgery. Her son, Óisín, a resident of County Londonderry, is diagnosed with multiple health conditions including cerebral palsy, thereby necessitating a series of medical procedures.
Northern Ireland currently endures the bleakest waiting times across the UK for outpatient or inpatient appointments, with over half a million cases pending. This precarious scenario, stated by the Department of Health as “entirely unacceptable,” poses a threat to the life and wellbeing of Óisín.
The child, in an urgent requirement of two surgical interventions, is reliant on a nasogastric tube, a feeding system directing nourishment from his nose to his stomach. However, since its installation six months prior, Óisín has been enduring severe difficulties in breathing. According to his mother, the severity has led to him gruesomely choking until vomit expulsion.
There is a glimmer of hope as plans are underway to replace the child’s nasogastric tube with a direct-to stomach feeding mechanism. However, Mullan’s fears persist, given an expected wait of three years for the procedure. She expressed her concerns of Óisín’s susceptibility to serious complications due to his cerebral palsy.
Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, the healthcare institution entrusted with the responsibility of facilitating the specialized surgery, assured that the wait would cap at two years. A hampered speed in the surgical process was attributed to a scarce availability of paediatric surgeons experienced in the procedure, with 75 children, including Óisín, currently listed.
Mullan also mentioned an additional surgical necessity for her son concerning his hip, stating that his right socket was entirely dislocated. While the surgery won’t grant Óisín the ability to walk, it is intended to forestall future pain.
The procedure, for which Óisín was enlisted a year prior, has yet to be scheduled. Particularly heavy demand has strained the Belfast Trust’s capacity to handle such surgeries. The trust informed that it was contemplating an array of options to alleviate waiting lists across its paediatric orthopaedic services.
Further shining a light on Northern Ireland’s waiting list quandary, the story of Taylor Clark comes to light. Once a coffee-shop manager, thirty-year-old Clark was compelled to relinquish her career owing to severe pain and restricted mobility. Afflicted with Ehlers Danlos syndrome – damaging tissues supporting her joints and muscles – Clark remains in constant pain, waiting for an outpatient rheumatology appointment promised two years ago.
The South Eastern Trust refrained from commenting on individual cases but expressed an understanding of the distress patients have to endure.
A panel of health experts assembled as part of the dialogue, propounded the necessity of increased accountability within the health service, an introduction of a performance management regime, greater public involvement, and robust political leadership.
The Department of Health, alluding to significantly adverse impacts of the pandemic on the current predicament, echoed the panel’s sentiments and called the waiting times “entirely unacceptable”. It advocated for a clear demarcation between elective care and urgent or emergency care as an integral process in tackling the crisis. Underway is the reconfiguration of hospital services, with day procedure centers and overnight stay centers in the works.