A personal crisis of faith in the public health system

In the dramatic second episode of Survivors the engineer Greg encounters the aristocratic Anne, who has shacked up with the unfortunate Vic Thatcher. Vic has had an accident with a tractor and his legs were pinned, before Greg got him out. But that is the extent of his knowledge, as neither Anne nor Greg have any medical training. Greg tries to make splints, and Anne eventually decides to abandon crippled Vic.

Besides being one of the most compelling storylines in the original Survivors TV series, it also shows what it is like to live without the implicit assurance of a public health system, and faith in an ambulance being available. In fact, it is mostly about the moral bonds between people, as opposed to the mercenary behaviour that characters under pressure can resort to. Indeed, the callous Anne is actually a complex character: when she was alone she very much needed Vic, but once he became a liability that was it, eventually. Yet, in the TV programme, it was actually Greg that made it clear he was leaving them alone.

Anyway this is all about injuries and the expectation of others, either as family or as health professionals. While Vic broke both legs in the fictional version, in real life, two months ago, I broke both arms when falling off a bicycle. Well, strictly speaking, a fractured wrist on one side; and on the other, broken ribs and a fractured clavicle (collar bone). This is a very common form of injury in road cycling, as seen in races on TV, but professional cyclists have doctors on hand immediately and then go off to hospital. It turns out that this does not happen in the New Zealand public health system anymore.

So I had the accident on an early Sunday afternoon. A motorist had stopped and called for an ambulance. I did not hear the conversation, but I gathered that it was not serious enough to send an ambulance, especially since a hospital is some distance away, in another city. Then another stranger took me to a local medical clinic, that masquerades as the local emergency centre. Anyone who has had a broken collar bone will know how painful it is, especially to take off clothing. I was at the medical clinic all afternoon, but, while it was not busy, it took hours to get X-rays taken. By then the pills they gave me had worn off, so no morphine from this clinic. They had to cut me out of some garments, and then I had a makeshift sling for my broken collar bone arm, and a makeshift cast for my right forearm. It was actually two bits of some old packaging, or so it seemed, stuck together, and pressed close up to my fingers so that I was barely able to use my hand. I was meant to go into the hospital later the next day.

But that never happened. On the next day I was in pain early in the morning, unable to change out of my lycra shorts, and had cold feet. I tried for the ambulance again to take me to the ED in the nearest city. They did send an ambulance this time, but when they got there the paramedics refused to offer any treatment. They also wouldn’t give me any pain relief, and claimed they didn’t have any, an obvious lie. I was lectured about the need to wear loose clothing, rather than lycra, and had to beg for help to change into other clothing, and get some socks on. They then told me to get a taxi back to same clinic again.

I was actually given an appointment for an outpatients service at Kenepuru Hospital, which was 9 days after the accident. The Accident Compensation Corporation arranged for private contractors to drive me there and back; and they eventually provided 3 hours of home help per week. So it took 10 days to get help in the shower, and avoid getting my cast wet. Of course, the authorities knew that I live alone, but did not speed up the process. You may ask why my family did not help. Well, they did, a bit, but my elderly mother was already in Kenepuru hospital, where she stayed for weeks waiting for surgery. I also complained about my initial treatment, but the Health & Disability Commissioner would not accept the complaint. I now face many more months of physiotherapy, mostly in the private sector at considerable cost.

So, there we are, like so many in New Zealand I have been failed by the public health system, and instead of nine hours in an ED to get a competent cast and sling, I had to wait nine days. So I have lost faith in the system, and now rather tire of how the health professionals claim to be so conscientious, but terribly underpaid. Paramedics moan about wanting to help people, but are not getting enough money to be bothered, at least for the deserving patients, not the silly old fools who fall off bikes and ladders.

One has to ask why there is such a shortage of medical professionals around the world, when they are so pious about wanting to help people. Indeed, they are usually paid much better than the average university graduate. Yes doctors have to study for a long time, and often get into a lot of student loan debt. But it takes much longer for other students to become doctors in their specialism, given that most must get three degrees before they can begin a PhD. And medical graduates know they will have a choice of jobs, and can work anywhere they like, when some of us failures with large debts end up working for the minimum wage. And one more thing for anyone reading this in the UK. The medical clinic I talked about had a male Scottish doctor, a female Irish doctor, and a Geordie nurse on staff. As with physiotherapists working in New Zealand, many have come from the NHS in the mother country.

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