I was scrolling through Twitter one morning in April when a familiar number popped up on my phone – my local hospital. I knew the call was coming; this would be the latest in a series of cancelled appointments – a date for laparoscopic surgery that was booked back in January when life could still be scheduled months in advance.
When I answered the call, I was surprised to hear from my no-nonsense Professor instead of the usual office staff. There was a softness in her voice as she asked how I was doing. I told her I’d had a rough few weeks – I have uterine fibroids (benign growths in the womb) and endometriosis, meaning I live with chronic pelvic pain and can bleed for up to three weeks out of every month.
“You’re calling to cancel my surgery, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, Catherine. But we also need to talk about the next steps.”
I took a deep breath as she continued: “We can’t reschedule your appointments any time soon. By the time we get back on track, there is a real chance your fibroids and endometriosis will have continued to grow, and radical surgery may be the only solution.”
“You mean a hysterectomy?”
“Yes, Catherine, a hysterectomy. I just wanted to give you time to prepare before we meet again.”
I was due to have a laparoscopy on 30th April – where fine instruments would be used to remove the endometrial tissue causing me pain and my larger fibroids would be surgically removed. I’d been told the recovery period would be around four weeks and there was an 80% chance I would feel the benefits of the surgery within two weeks of discharge.
Now, I was facing the prospect of a major operation, with double the recovery time, along with the emotional impact of losing my womb.
As we said our goodbyes, I realised I was crying. I looked at my phone and noted that the life-changing call was only six minutes long. A short call for such big news. It wasn’t the first time radical surgery was mentioned, but it was discussed as a last resort, something that may happen years, not months from now.
I am 38, and while children are not in my future, I don’t feel ready to condemn the organ that symbolises my very femininity to medical waste.
When the pandemic hit, I knew my appointments would be postponed, without realising the potential for long-term impact. It had taken two years to see a gynaecology consultant after being fobbed off by various GPs, one of whom told me that pain and excessive bleeding were just “part of being a woman.” After coming so far and having a plan to manage the conditions that hugely impacted my daily life, I felt utterly deflated.
According to modelling carried out by the CovidSurg collaborative – a global network of surgeons and anaesthetists – more than 516,000 planned surgeries would be cancelled or postponed in the UK during the first 12 weeks of Covid disruptions, a backlog that might take 11 months to clear. Last week the NHS Confederation projected that the Covid-19 crisis could see the number of people waiting for NHS treatment to double to 10 million by the end of the year.
Behind every cancellation is a patient who psyched themselves up for surgery, who pinned their hopes on cure or relief, only to have that opportunity snatched away.
Lindsay Smith, 42, was due to have a hysterectomy on 4th June after a decade of suffering but now faces further delays. “I waited 38 weeks for my surgery date and was devastated when I got the call to tell me it wasn’t going ahead. I am in so much pain that I haven’t been able to have sex with my husband for four years. I’m seriously considering taking out a loan to pay for private surgery because I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this.”
Researchers from Warwick Medical School have conducted a survey into women’s healthcare services. Lead author Dr Bassel Watter of Warwick Medical School says that although many health providers have adapted well, “Covid-19 is presenting an unprecedented challenge to the medical community worldwide, disrupting access to health services and increasing the strain and demand on medical staff. As we re-allocate resources to deal with the pandemic many groups requiring continuous care, for example, maternity, cancer, and trauma care, will be adversely impacted. “
In early June I received another call from my gynaecologist to let me know that she’d come up with a plan to manage my symptoms. She told me that despite some NHS services returning to “business as usual”, there was now a significant backlog of cancelled operations that had been re-triaged by NHS clinicians. Capacity was limited by social distancing rules and bed availability and my case was simply not urgent enough to warrant a surgery date.