In February, I learned that my left kidney is damaged. I have a pelvic ureteric junction obstruction, meaning that one kidney doesn’t filter properly. Instead, it fills up like a balloon ready to explode inside me. In some cases, this can be treated with a stent. Unfortunately for me, I’ve (unknowingly) had it for so long that it has caused the kidney to swell to the point where it is now badly damaged and needs surgery. I met my surgeon at the beginning of June and was put on the NHS surgery waiting list.
I can cope with the physical pain. But I really struggle to deal with the distress and anxiety of being on what seems like a never-ending waiting list. The maximum wait for my surgery is supposed to be 18 weeks. To even get to this point has involved months of waiting for scans and appointments. Last month’s figures show a record high of 4.4 million people are now waiting for routine surgery, and I’m saddened to say that I no longer have faith I will be treated within the target time.
But it’s not just routine treatments. For cancer surgeries, the situation is devastating. Waiting times for receiving treatment for cancer have risen, with almost 34,000 people waiting too long for treatment. NHS England aims to ensure that 94% of cancer patients requiring surgery should should have it within 31 days of the decision to treat. This target has been missed consistently since August 2018. Meanwhile, cancer continues to take lives in the interim. Dany Bell, a treatment and recovery specialist adviser at Macmillan Cancer Support, told me: “I’ve heard first-hand from doctors and nurses about how patients are becoming increasingly distressed by further delays while they anxiously wait for surgery to treat their cancer. They don’t feel that they can move forward until their treatment is under way.”
The mental anguish during the wait for surgery is something I had never expected to feel. It’s hard enough finding out there is something wrong with your body, but learning that you have to wait for an unknown amount of time to get it fixed is unbearable. I’ve found myself on edge with anxiety, enduring many sleepless nights. Being unwell takes up time and money, because patients’ work schedules must be punctuated with appointments. I’m in my mid-20s, wanting to throw myself into my career and get on with my life. Instead, I’m tormented by physical pain and emotional anguish.
The link between our physical and mental health becomes all the more potent when awaiting surgery. Pain, severe fatigue and a life interrupted by illness create the perfect cocktail for extreme stress and anxiety. Yet this is often forgotten during the surgery wait. Geoff Heyes, head of health policy and influencing at Mind, says: “It seems obvious that being diagnosed with and undergoing treatment for a serious physical illness is going to have an impact on someone’s mental wellbeing but too often they are treated separately, without much attention given to the person as a whole.” Cuts across the NHS really don’t take this into account.
Our NHS doctors and nurses work tirelessly so that when you are eventually seen, you are given some of the world’s best care. But realising that they currently do not have the resources to give you that care is unsettling. They are contending with a backlog of patients in pain. They need to make sure they have a full team of medical staff for each operation, as well as ensuring the patient will have a bed after theatre. The row over consultants’ pensions– with senior doctors avoiding working overtime to avoid hefty tax bills – is making the situation even worse.
The Royal College of Surgeons has called on the new prime minister to “act fast”. Boris Johnson has pledged £1.8bn of extra funding for NHS hospitals, but experts have argued this isn’t new money, and it’s reserved for capital projects. The money is promised to go towards facilities and building repairs that could put more theatres in action, increasing the number of operations in turn. But I’m not sure the money will be enough to have any direct impact on the extensive lists, as the problem is far greater than one that can be fixed with building works – it’s an issue that demands the repair of NHS staff morale and patient trust, too. At best, there will be a knock-on effect, but this will involve – you guessed it – waiting.
We’ve become so accustomed to seeing lengthening delays for NHS treatment that it’s easy to forget that behind those stats are people in pain and distress, relying on not much more than a hope that they will one day be given a date for their life-changing operation.
• Susannah Thraves is a TV journalist