'I'm waiting to be set free': Almost 15,000 on surgery list for a year
- Credit: Carly Cleveland
As the NHS wrestles with Covid, a hidden crisis is waiting in the wings. Almost 15,000 people in Norfolk and north Suffolk have waited more than a year for routine surgeries, and hospital chiefs have warned the worst is yet to come.
Carly Cleveland is desperate to have another child.
But instead, the 32-year-old from Lowestoft is facing up to nine more months of pain as she waits for surgery to treat her Endometriosis, an agonising condition that affects the uterus. She was diagnosed four years ago after her first son was born.
Mrs Cleveland said the hardest part is juggling the painful physical effects of her condition and the mental toll the delay is having on her and her family.
“My hands are tied, basically,” she said. “This condition is extremely painful, and it has a huge effect on me physically and mentally.
“I’m worried that my egg count, which was low anyway because of my age, will continue to drop while we wait for the backlog of procedures to clear, so we might not be able to have another child.
“It’s had such a big impact on my family’s mental health.”
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Mrs Cleveland is one of 11,534 Norfolk patients who had waited a year or more for routine surgeries by November last year, and as the battle to contain the Covid pandemic overwhelms the NHS, waiting times for non-coronavirus treatments are set to get even longer.
Erin Escott, 21 from Loddon, has been waiting since late 2019 for an operation at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) to remove her gallstones.
She described the pain from daily attacks as excruciating and said her mental health has deteriorated to the point where she doesn’t recognise herself anymore.
“It stops me in my tracks, and I’m rolling around on the floor when it happens,” said Ms Escott.
“I’ve been on the surgery waiting list since last January. It feels like I can’t look after my little boy, because I’m in pain all the time.”
Ms Escott has been prescribed morphine to help control the pain, but says the attacks are so common that the drug is no longer effective. With surgery the only option left, she faces an indefinite wait for help.
“This has changed me so much, and I feel like I’ve lost myself. I’ve been told surgery is the only option, but no one can tell me when that will be. I’m waiting to find out when I can be free again.”
At the NNUH, more than 9,000 patients had waited more than a year for surgery by November – 13pc of all surgery patients there.
Last January, just 114 people at the NNUH had waited as long – 0.2pc of the total. At the time, no other Norfolk hospital had patients waiting as long for operations.
But by November, the James Paget University Hospital (JPUH) had 1,018 in that position, and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) had 1,251 – 6pc and 7pc of all surgery patients respectively.
It is a similar picture in the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, where 3,414 patients had been waiting a year by November, compared to just 16 in January.
The target waiting time for NHS trusts is 18 weeks. Before the pandemic hit, around a quarter of all patients faced longer waits. Now, that has risen to 47pc at the NNUH, 40pc at the JPUH and 38pc at the QEH.
Most waits longer are for orthopaedic or trauma operations, with 5,733 of 14,948 patients on the list in that category across Norfolk and West Suffolk.
One of those is 70-year-old Don Hayes from Pakefield who has been waiting for just over a year for a hip replacement operation at the JPUH.
Mr Hayes is in agony every day, and his condition has deteriorated so much in the last year that he can now only walk with a Zimmer frame.
“My hip joint in basically bone on bone,” said Mr Hayes.
“I’m in absolute agony some days, especially with the recent cold weather.”
Mr Hayes said his condition meant he has spent a year not being able to walk, fish or play with his grandchildren.
“Obviously there is nothing anybody can do, and you can’t blame the hospitals,” he added.
“But it has taken my life away. Basically, I’m just waiting. We asked the hospital if they could outsource privately, or if there was any other hospital we could go to, but everywhere is in the same position.”
All trusts confirmed cancer treatments were continuing, and patients requiring urgent care were being prioritised.
The NNUH’s chief executive Sam Higginson has warned the worst is yet to come.
“We want to look after people so that's a real challenge psychologically for our staff,” he said.
"But it's going to get worse before it gets better. Realistically it will not have improved in December or January, probably it will not improve in February and it may not improve in March.”
Mr Higginson added the trust was doing all it could to increase theatre capacity, including starting work on two new paediatric theatres which will relieve some of the pressure.
The James Paget’s chief operating officer Joanne Segasby said staff were working hard to ensure theatres were safe, but added a huge rise in the number of Covid patients had inevitably led to postponements.
Denise Smith, chief operating Officer at QEH said: “We continue to provide clinically urgent care and cancer surgery. Please be assured that we review and clinically prioritise all patients waiting for treatment, in line with national guidance, so that those patients requiring urgent care receive this at the earliest opportunity."