I then thought, why keep it to myself? As it was a fairly drawn out experience, I'll serialise it over a few blog posts. Hopefully someone will find it of interest. I'm a bit eye-squeamish (unsurprisingly less so after the last year or so!) so hopefully if I can read the posts to edit them, they won't make you feel too queasy either! Now over to my guest blogger...
Rachel has asked me to write a piece for her blog to detail my recent treatment for cataracts. The first thing people usually say is “You’re a bit young for cataracts aren’t you?” Being in my mid 40’s I’m no spring chicken but I don’t fit the usual profile for cataract surgery.
I have always been extremely myopic. I started wearing glasses for reading when I was five years old and my sight has got progressively worse. When I was in my mid 20’s I had a detached retina in my right eye. As it was explained to me, due to my elongated eyeball the retina was stretched pretty thin and had developed a tear. This tear allowed aqueous humour to get behind the retina and, like water behind wallpaper, it caused the retina to start to detach. The treatment I was given was a silicon explant / buckle on the back of the affected eyeball (designed to push the wall of the eye in towards the retina) and also laser surgery to “spot weld” the retina and seal any tears. At the same time they performed pre-emptive laser on my left eye to try to prevent this being similarly affected.
What they didn’t tell me, and to be honest it would have made no difference if they had as it was vital surgery to save my sight, was that a common side effect of the laser surgery was premature cataract formation.
So fast forward twenty years to February 2015 and I find myself in the optician’s chair being told that my cataracts had developed to a point where corrective lenses couldn’t bring my sight up to any reasonable standard. I would need to be referred to a hospital for surgery. It had been a steady decline over several years so I was aware it was coming but it was still a shock that I was going to need surgery.
The initial referral was to my GP. Due to NHS bureaucracy opticians cannot refer direct to hospitals. I was warned that my GP would probably want me to see them for a discussion about treatment before referring me on but that it would all take place in about a week. After a fortnight of not hearing anything I chased the practice and all they could tell me was that they had received the referral letter but that nothing had been done with it. I chased a couple of times more, getting the same answer each time, until I received a letter through the post in mid March 2015 inviting me to “choose and book” my appointment. There were a selection of hospitals to choose from and I selected the Bristol Eye Hospital (the 'BEH'). Apart from my history of myopia and detachment I also suffer from iritis, an autoimmune condition which causes inflammation in the front of the eye. I assumed that it would be safer for me to attend the hospital that would have a detailed history for me rather than starting afresh somewhere else.
Unfortunately, the BEH is very popular due to its specialist focus and it wasn’t possible to get a date for an appointment and instead I received a “you’re in the pile” type of acknowledgement. Understandable but still not terribly helpful. After hearing nothing after a month I rang “choose and book” and was told I should hear soon. The next time I rang them (a couple of weeks later) I was given the details of the hospital team to ring and also advised of process for complaining to the Patient Liaison team at the hospital trust.
I spoke to the appointments team at the BEH who were very rude. It was now May and I wanted to know when I would hear something and at least get an appointment date through. The lady I spoke to said, “I haven’t got an appointment to give you, what do you expect me to do?”. Anticipating that NHS lack of resources would be involved somewhere, what I had specifically not done was to demand an appointment now / soon, I had just asked when I would hear what was happening.
Disappointed by the lack of compassion or understanding I reluctantly complained to the Patient Liaison Service. I didn’t want to make things worse for the Hospital but I was left with nowhere else to go. My written complaint was regarding the lack of communication and transparency. Little did I know that this would not be the only time I had to formally complain. I was initially contacted by someone who asked me what I wanted to complain about. I explained and her response was “What do you expect me to do about it, I can’t make you an appointment”. I was surprisingly, and somewhat uncharacteristically calm (I don’t suffer poor service well) but was constantly met with a negative attitude from someone who was obviously responding to the complaint they expected me to make rather than the one I was making. I had no choice but to escalate my complaint. This was already feeling like an unnecessary waste of time and effort and was having a detrimental effect on my blood pressure but I was left with no other option other than wait indefinitely for a response.
I next received a phone call from the newly appointed appointment booking manager. He sounded as though he was just coming to realise the magnitude of the task before him and I was just the tip of the iceberg. We had a long conversation and he was very candid. The hospital was struggling to find qualified clinicians to fill the posts required to fulfil all the requested appointments. A backlog had built up and it was now at the point where if they did find the suitable staff then facilities would be the limiting factor. He was obviously doing his best but couldn’t practically schedule sufficient appointments to stay on top of the ever growing waiting list. His plan was to find some locum clinicians to concentrate on the backlog and just do the best he could. He couldn’t prioritise me as although effectively blind in one eye now, it wasn’t life threatening. To be fair, I didn’t want priority treatment, I just wanted to know that something was happening and it would eventually be resolved.
True to his word an assessment appointment came through in early June. I had a lot of questions and I thought this would be my opportunity to ask them. I had a complex history and given how important my eyes are to me and my work and the pressures on the NHS I wanted to ask whether I should be thinking about going privately and potentially looking at a multi focal implant. It would be expensive but a price worth paying for something so important. It was also important to me to know when / if they would operate on my right eye. It wasn’t yet at the point that it needed the surgery but it was well on the way.
The assessment clinic was packed and we had a long wait past our appointment time. This is just something that one comes to accept with the NHS. When we got to see the consultant he looked at my eyes and said “You need to have these cataracts seen to.” I was a little stunned, that was why we were there… “So what next?” I asked. A pre-op assessment was the answer. I asked my other questions and was told that he had no idea and couldn’t comment as he was just a locum and didn’t work at the hospital usually. With that we were shown out. I’d waited four months to have an appointment with a locum who could give me no information on my possible treatment but correctly identified the reason why my optician had referred me in the first place. At least I was now in the system…
In July 2015 I had my pre-op assessment. I had been told that this would be with a consultant but as it happened it was with a nurse. The first thing she did was ask me to take my glasses off and then read letters off the chart. My prescription was -14 so without my glasses I’m doing well to see the chart let alone read anything. She seemed amazed when I couldn’t read anything and actually asked me, “can you see me?” and waved her arms.
They then put me on a machine that scans your eye and assesses what strength of lens you need to give you perfect sight following the operation. This is for distance only as you will need reading glasses for close up. It's all automated and apparently can’t be influenced by human error which was a relief as the nurse seemed confused by the results she was getting.
She couldn’t answer any of my questions so I left again not really knowing what was going on. I asked when I would see a consultant who could answer my questions and was told that it would be on the morning of the operation. I was not going to wait until that late stage to get answers so I complained to the Liaison Service again. After my previous experience I also went to see my GP. This process had dragged on so long that I now lived fifty miles from Bristol and had changed GP. The GP was brilliant though, assuring me that I wasn’t being a fussy bugger and that my questions were not only not unreasonable but he would definitely recommend me getting them answered before I proceeded. He said he would write to the consultant named on my GP records.
A week later I had a second pre-op assessment, this time with a doctor. He wasn’t a consultant but he would, I was told, be able to answer all of my queries. He had a copy of my complaint in front of him and he went through each point. Some of his resolutions were a little vague and along the lines of, “I’m sorry but there’s nothing we can do now” but one thing he did clarify was what would be needed for my right eye. Wearing strong glasses makes the image that you see smaller than uncorrected vision. He was very clear that I could not operate with only one eye treated as the images from each eye would be different sizes. I would definitely need both eyes done in quick succession but that the NHS would not, under any circumstances, do this as I could still see out of that eye. I needed to arrange a private consultation and surgery on my right eye.
When we got home from that appointment there was an appointment letter waiting for me with a consultant. This was as a result of my GP’s letter. As I was under the impression that I had already received the answers and clarifications that I sought I cancelled this appointment. The consultant was Ms Claire Bailey and having googled her she had an excellent reputation and an expertise in retinal medicine. For this reason I made a private appointment with her to discuss my right eye. She was on holiday so I couldn’t see her until early September. By coincidence I received a surgery date which was later the same week so it felt like things were coming together.
When I met Ms Bailey in early September and recounted my tale she was shocked and frustrated. It turned out she was due to take a more senior role at the health trust and would be responsible for overall clinical performance. She was most upset by the advice I had been given that I would need the second eye done privately. She stated that as I could not operate with only one eye done then the NHS had an obligation to do the second eye as well. She thought it wise if I was treated by her personally and so I cancelled my upcoming surgery with another consultant and awaited a new operation date with Ms Bailey.
The next post in the series will be up next Friday and will cover the operations...
The next post in the series will be up next Friday and will cover the operations...