I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed good physical health throughout my life.
Which made it all the more unexpected when I recently injured myself.
To be clear from the start, my ailment was minor. I was playing tennis and when stretching for a shot felt a ripping, searing pain travel up the back of my right calf.
‘Oh, that can’t be good,’ I thought immediately. I tried to run the injury off and continue with the game but it became apparent quickly that I could put no weight on that leg and would have to retire.
Soon after I got home my leg started to swell. I was unable to walk that evening and had to travel up and down the stairs by sliding on my backside.
I had an instinctive feeling that I should probably get some medical attention. But I found myself in a strange in-between place. If I had fallen and broken my ankle I would have been taken straight to hospital. But I guessed I had merely torn or sprained a muscle. So what was I to do?
There was the option of going to Accident and Emergency. But previous history has informed me that this is a place only to visit when you are desperate. An A&E visit would have involved being driven into Belfast, triaged and (quite rightly) put at the bottom of the priority list and then waiting several hours and possibly throughout the night to be seen by a doctor.
Another option was to get an appointment with my GP. But again recent history in this area has not been positive. When I’ve phoned on previous occasions seeking an appointment I’ve been told there are none available. Or, to elaborate, the clinic only offers appointments for a set number of weeks in advance. They are all usually all full. As each day passes a new set of appointments open up and are immediately filled by people phoning seconds after the surgery has opened in the morning to get the prized date six weeks later.
It just didn’t seem like a likely solution.
But there was another reason which held me back from pursuing immediate medical help. The idea, in my head, that resources are scarce and that there are many more deserving cases than me. Is it really morally defensible for me to hog a valuable slot with a doctor for something as mundane as a sore leg?
It was the same feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and reluctance which prevented me for many years from seeking help for mental health issues. I waited too long. Much too long.
But, on this evening, as my leg throbbed, I tried to come up with another way. I went online and found that my local health trust had a self-referral physiotherapy service.
Even here I was cautious, not wanting to clog up a system designed for people with more serious problems. But the explanatory notes were clear in stating the service catered for muscle strains, sprains and sports injuries. I filled the form out, explaining, that at that exact moment, I was unable to walk on the leg.
I sent off the online form. Soon I received an email confirming receipt and telling me that my claim would be triaged within eight days.
So I moved on. My wife did an admirable job of bandaging my injured leg. The school run did not cease for my injury so I had a few days of hobbling up and down the main street of the little village where I live to get my boy to the school gates on time.
After a while a huge bruise appeared on my shin. The severe pain eventually gave way to a dull ache and my limp went from severe to moderate to slight.
After a couple of weeks I was able to walk in a fashion which prevented other parents on the school run having to ask me if I needed help.
I knew that I was healing but there was still part of me which thought it was worth getting a medical opinion. Even though I was walking well I knew that any more energetic stretching motion still resulted in sharp pain. Even a light jog remained out of the question and when I massaged the muscles with my fingers the ache became more pronounced. I wanted a reassurance that the healing process was following the right path and advice on how to avoid a similar injury in the future.
Then, seventeen days after I had hurt myself, I got a letter from my health trust. It contained confirmation of my referral and a reference and phone number.
I called the number and the woman at the other end gave me the first available physio appointment at my local hospital. Which was in mid-November.
I had been patient throughout the process, uncomplaining and prepared to wait my turn. But now it occurred to me that by the time I would finally get seen by a qualified professional it would be close to three months since I had hurt myself. I really wanted to be running again and back on the tennis court by then.
My wife suggested, not for the first time, that I should call the private health company to whom we pay money each month.
We’ve been covered by private health insurance for several years. Twice we have gone down this route when my son needed operations for which there were long waiting lists.
On one occasion, when my boy developed a nasty and worrying growth on the back of his neck, we took him to the GP who opened the conversation by asking us if we had private health insurance, such was the potential delay otherwise.
But, even though we paid every month for it, I had never before considered using it for myself.
This is difficult to explain. Perhaps there was some form of latent guilt about me taking a short cut when others are having to suffer and wait.
After much persuasion I made the phone call. I answered lots of questions before I was referred to a private clinic. The clinic phoned me hours later and offered me a physio session early in the morning of the next working day.
On the same day I got the phone call I received a letter from the health trust confirming my November appointment. I made a mental note to be sure to cancel this appointment.
And then, this morning, another letter dropped on the mat in my hall. I was running out of the house to fetch my son from school when I saw it. It was addressed to me and the envelope again bore the name of my local health trust. It looked the same as the letter I had received from them the day previously.
I quickly ripped it open. It contained information that I had been referred to the ear, nose and throat service in a hospital.
I was now late and had no time to examine it further. I drove away confused. How had a leg injury and a physio appointment ended up with me being referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist?
It bugged me all day until I got home and read the letter properly. Now I realised that the letter wasn’t for me at all but for my son who has the same first initial.
But it still didn’t make sense. Why was my son being referred to a hospital specialist? And why did I not know anything about it?
My wife and I searched for an answer. Then, eventually, one presented itself.
When my son was in P1, like all the children, he was examined by the school nurse. She sent a letter home in which she said she thought his hearing should be tested. She told us that she was going to write a letter to his GP about it.
I was unconcerned. I spend a lot of time with my son every day and I’m certain that there is no issue with his hearing. Having said that, if the school nurse believed that it should be checked then I had no problem in going along with it.
Then time passed. A lot of time. I never heard from the nurse again or the GP about the matter. I suppose we forgot all about it. My son continues to grow and I’m as certain now as I was then that there is no issue with his hearing.
But today, a full two years later, a letter had arrived from the health trust about the matter.
I sat down and read it again.
The letter said they had received a referral from his GP.
Then it contained this sentence.
‘We want to reassure you that you have not been overlooked, and regret that it has not been possible to give you a date for your appointment.’
The letter was accompanied by a reply form asking us if we still wanted to proceed with an appointment. There was also an addressed envelope, with no postage paid.
I was a little bemused. I thought about what was happening.
Two years just to receive a letter from the hospital informing my son that he has not been overlooked.
I hobbled up the stairs, my leg was throbbing again, but I hardly noticed it now.