DR MAX PEMBERTON: Having an op put off is devastating

DR MAX PEMBERTON: Having an op put off is devastating, as my dear old gran found the hard way

  • Dr Max Pemberton recalls his grandmother suffering with pain in her hip
  • British psychiatrist says being put on a lengthy waiting list made her feel suicidal 
  • He argues we cannot let the NHS grind to a halt because of the pandemic 

My gran was tough as old boots. She was one of 14 and brought up in grinding poverty. She was never one to complain. Proud of her Yorkshire roots, she had a proper stiff upper-lip. Her motto in life was you just get on with it.

Despite having had a very hard life, she never showed any signs of things ever being too much. No complaining, no whingeing. So, it came as a shock when she told me she was thinking of killing herself.

It was in the last few years of her life and she had phoned me to tell me this, not in some melodramatic way, but with her usual sensible, matter-of-fact approach to life.

The pain in her hip had simply got too much for her. She was unable to sleep, she couldn’t walk properly and, for her, life had become unbearable. She was unable to get comfortable and felt that she was in a living nightmare as a result.

Dr Max Pemberton reflected on his grandmother becoming suicidal while waiting for a hospital operation (file image)

The doctor had prescribed painkillers but they made her confused and constipated and put her off her food, so she had lost weight.

Her muscles had started to weaken because she couldn’t walk, so she could now even barely stand.

She had been put on a waiting list for a hip replacement but had been warned it could be up to a year. For her, this was simply too long to wait feeling in such agony and despair.

I called the GP, who was excellent and went round straight away, and, after a lot of wrangling with the hospital, eventually my gran got a cancellation and her hip was fixed.

But does an old lady really have to become suicidal before she gets treatment?

What frustrates me is that operations such as knee, hip and cataract are consistently dismissed as routine, the implication being they are run-of-the-mill, and not urgent — in fact, almost frivolous.

Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. These operations change lives. Figures show that 4.7 million fewer people were referred to hospital during lockdown compared to the same period last year.

You might think this is a good thing — after all, it means the NHS can focus on other things such as fighting the pandemic.

The problem is that those patients who would have been referred have not gone away. Their medical needs have not vanished.

Dr Max (pictured) argues the NHS cannot be allowed to grind to a half because of the pandemic

Instead, the lockdown has just delayed things. It has acted like a dam, but soon that dam will burst and there will be a tidal wave of patients engulfing the NHS.

Those millions of patients represent a hidden backlog that will, sooner or later, need treatment.

Many of them are older people who need knee, hip and cataract operations.

The Health Foundation, which compiled the research, warned that long waiting lists could become the norm for many people. When I read this, I was struck by a sense of doom.

I remember the Eighties and early Nineties, when it was common for people to have to wait two years for a hip operation. It was inhumane. We simply cannot allow this to return.

Yes, I understand that the pandemic has been unprecedented. But the NHS simply cannot be allowed to grind to a halt.

My friend, a hip surgeon, has been beside herself trying to get her operating list up and running again only to be met by obstructions from managers too wary of opening up services for fear of the pandemic.

Instead, she has stood idle for months as the backlog of operations grows.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — the procedures that have already been planned.

As we know, during the pandemic many people have stayed away from GPs — or perhaps struggled even to be seen — but will eventually need to be referred.

My gran was of the generation that doesn’t like to complain when it comes to their health. The generation where children with polio were commonplace, where chronic illness was rife, where diabetes meant you went blind.

She watched her mother have four teeth removed without any anaesthetic, because she couldn’t afford the fee.

They’re the generation that doesn’t like to make a fuss; that counts thems-elves lucky.

Make do and mend, that’s their philosophy.

Yet I worry that it’s this attitude that means they won’t assert themselves when it comes to demanding treatment for their health problems.

We can’t allow waiting lists for life-changing operations such as hip and knee replacements to grow and these kinds of procedures to be sidelined.

The NHS must do everything it can to ensure the backlog of referrals doesn’t throw us back to the days when these operations were considered a luxury, and people suffered terribly as a result. 

Your body shouldn’t be a mystery

A recent study revealed almost 50 per cent of women don’t know where their cervix or uterus is (file image)

Almost 50 per cent of women don’t know where their cervix or uterus is, nor the purpose of menstruation, according to a recent study. I’m often shocked at how little people know about their bodies. In fact, I wrote a children’s book last year about anatomy after reading a study in The BMJ that said most people don’t understand what their major organs do or where they are. But studies such as these show how doctors often overestimate the knowledge of the general public.

I once met a patient who told me doctors had told her she was dying. I discovered she had been diagnosed with an acute renal injury — temporary damage to her kidney. I told her the diagnosis. No one had thought to check she understood what was happening.

Now, I always check that my patients have understood what I have said.

  •  Nursery children have been playing on their own in silence and more have been coming to school in nappies, according to a headteacher interviewed on the radio last week. What a truly horrifying legacy of lockdown. Toddlers are at such a vulnerable age neurologically. There are windows of opportunity for children to acquire key developmental milestones such as learning to talk.

My worry is that the poorest are most vulnerable because they are less likely to have been stimulated. We must do all we can to ensure they do not suffer a lasting legacy of lockdown.

Dr Max prescribes…

vitamin d

Dr Max said it’s particularly important to take vitamin d supplements at this time of year because most people are deficient during the winter months (file image)

It has been very exciting to hear about mounting research which has shown that vitamin D — called the sunshine vitamin because it’s made in skin when exposed to sunlight — can help protect against coronavirus. I have been taking vitamin D for years, but it’s particularly important to take supplements at this time of year because most people are deficient in it during the winter months.

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