“Disappointed” and “angry” are the words used by Enniskillen lady Pat Kelso to describe how she felt after she was deemed to be clinically unfit to be placed on a fast-tracked waiting list for a hip operation.
It was not until after the now 81-year-old had paid to have the treatment privately that she discovered that it was because she was over 70 that the decision had been taken by the Western Health and Social Care Trust not to place her name on the 30-week waiting list, as opposed to the unbearably long 68 week one.
And she is now continuing to speak out on behalf of not only herself, but other older people living in Northern Ireland who are facing what she believes is age discrimination.
“I was fortunate; I had worked in the health service, I had a pension, I had savings, and a very supportive family, but there are a great many elderly people who are not in that situation,” she told the News Letter.
“I felt very angry, not just for me but for my generation, and that’s why I feel the MLAs should make good their promises to end age discrimination.”
Former speech therapist Pat was first referred and placed on the waiting list for her operation through the Western Trust at the end of 2012.
She was told that due to a fire at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry, some wards were closed, and the waiting time for her surgery would be 68 weeks - well over a year. However in an attempt to bring relief to patients, the Trust were trying to place those who were deemed clinically fit for surgery on a shorter 30-week waiting list via “the use of the independent sector”, explains Pat.
And the Fermanagh woman had no reason to believe she would not fall into this category.
“I had never smoked, I had never had any chest or heart problems or been overweight for more than about a stone, and was really in general good health, so obviously I thought - I assumed - I would be deemed clinically fit and placed on the shorter waiting list.
“My family were wanting to plan a holiday and my daughter Laura phoned the hospital to check if she could find out roughly my place on what we assumed would be the 30-week list to try and get some idea of when (we could go away).
“And she was astonished to be told that I had been deemed clinically unfit and that I would have to wait 68 weeks.”
Pat adds that she herself was “perplexed and very worried” to receive this news, because of the implications that there was something wrong with her in terms of her health.
“I have an excellent GP, the whole practice is great, and surely if I had something they would have picked it up,” she says.
“My daughter wrote to the Trust asking if they could give some information about this medical condition or what was wrong with me. We got letters that answered everything except that question.”
Pat says that “by this time, in the wee small hours that the elderly know so well about”, she was beginning to think the worst, and imagine that the X-rays which had been done had picked up something serious like bone cancer.
Her hip pain was increasing and she felt there was no way she could wait 68 weeks to be treated, and so she decided to pay for private treatment.
She visited a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in April 2013, who told her that he could see nothing from her case history to indicate that she needed to be operated on in Musgrave Park Hospital, where there were intensive care facilities available in case of post-operative complications.
A month later, Pat continues, the surgeon “carried out a pre-operative assessment and found nothing in my past medical history or the test results that raised any concern with regard to my fitness for an operation, and that it was extremely unlikely that I would require any intensive care after surgery.”
Pat was understandably “absolutely relieved and delighted” to get a clean bill of health, and her operation went ahead on June 24, free from any complications.
However it was afterwards that the realisation that she could have had her operation via the Trust began to sink in.
“Obviously I was a wee bit miffed at being told I was clinically unfit when the consultant anaethetist had put it in writing that there was nothing wrong with me.”
The pensioner says that after further correspondance with the Trust, she was told that increasing the age limit on cases referred for fast-tracked surgery could also possibly increase the return rate to intensive care units as a result of post-operative complications, and would as such lead to anxiety for older patients.
Says Pat: “That’s very sensible. But I feel that for anyone over 70, their GP would have alerted them to the possibility (of complications) long before they went for a private consultation, and while they would be very disappointed I don’t think they would be terribly shocked or have a greater level of anxiety.
“The greater level of anxiety was the fact that I was told that I had a medical condition that I did not have. I did not think of age as a medical condition.”
Pat continues: “I felt disappointed in the health service. I felt angry - it’s not fair to lump all the elderly together in a ‘one size fits all’. They’re not ‘generally’, they are individuals, and we certainly should not be diagnosed as clinically unfit by an anaethetist who has not so much as laid eyes on us, nor apparently our case notes. They had nothing to go on but my date of birth. And that’s not practising medicine - any junior clerk could score me off a list according to my age.
“I felt like I wasn’t being looked at as an individual, nobody looked at Pat Kelso. What they looked at was a date of birth and made a decision on that date of birth because of “generally” - and “generally” to me is at the root of a lot of discrimination.”
Pat insists that she would have been happy to wait for a year for her surgery if doctors had found something wrong with her that deemed such a situation necessary.
“I have no wish to die on an operating table. But it’s not fair to make those who are clinically fit to wait or pay because you hadn’t properly screened them.”
And she adds that age discrimination needs to come to an end for the benefit of everyone.