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HEALTHCARE BACKLOG

“If my back gets any worse, I could end up in a wheelchair” — patients speak out

Concerns rise as waiting lists for important surgeries get longer

Antonia Arajol, who has been waiting for seven months to undergo cornea-transplant surgery. Ampliar foto
Antonia Arajol, who has been waiting for seven months to undergo cornea-transplant surgery. EL PAÍS

More than half-a-million people are currently on waiting lists for some kind of surgery right now in Spain. That's 1.2 percent of the total population, and the figure has risen by 120,000 people in just a year. But the deterioration of the healthcare system is not about numbers. Behind every single one of the 571,395 cases on the waiting lists lies a story of suffering, which each patient is dealing with as best they can.

Antonia Arajol, from Cornellà de Llobregat (Barcelona), has been waiting for her third cornea transplant since March. "I've been blind in one eye for seven months," the 67-year-old explains.

Meanwhile, Bernardo Pons Sintes (63), a patient from Menorca who is suffering from spinal stenosis - a narrowing of the spinal canal - speaks about his fears. "My back is in a terrible state," he says. "If it gets any worse, I could end up in a wheelchair." He has only been on the waiting list since August 23, but he is not expecting anything to happen anytime soon. "The doctor said to me, 'Your condition is very serious, but as there are no operating theaters, I won't be able to operate on you for two years'."

Neither of these cases are as extreme as that of Luis Canabal Ramón, a man from León who died waiting for an operation on an artery after nine months on a waiting list. The state ombudsman has recently ruled in favor of his family, but they are yet to receive any kind of compensation. "At least we know that they have taken steps to prevent another case like this one," explains Laura, the sister of Luis.

As there are no theaters, I won't be able to operate for two years"

In this situation of desperation and concern, the words of Health Minister Ana Mato on Tuesday will have done little to console patients. In reference to the latest figures on waiting lists, she limited herself to saying that the worst was over and that things "could only get better." Neither Mato nor anyone else from her department offered any official explanation for the statistics, her scant comments coming during an official appointment with Spain's Queen Sofía. "The regions are making a huge effort [to bring down waiting lists]," she told reporters.

But this message comes as little comfort to the patients, nor to healthcare professionals. Medical staff within the public system have no doubt that staffing cuts are to blame for the situation. They cannot see how the situation is going to get better anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Antonia Arajol has had to learn to live using just one of her eyes. The other has to be covered up with a patch, since her ophthalmologist told her that she would have to undergo a cornea transplant. She is suffering from keratoconus, a degenerative disorder that gives the eye a conical shape. The worst part about it, she explains, is that she has the sensation of just seeing "a quarter" of reality.

"To start with I was very uncomfortable on the streets," explains Arajol, who used to work as a teacher at a public school. "But now I'll go anywhere. If I have a problem, I run my hand along the wall."

If they take too long, they'll have to carry out all the tests again"

Seeing through just one eye stops her from perceiving distances. "Patients can't properly calculate depth," explains Jordi Farrando, an ophthalmologist at the Mataró Hospital in Barcelona. Arajol has been coping with this since February, since her ophthalmologist told her that she would need surgery. She has already undergone two cornea transplants, but her body rejected them both.

Arajol had a pre-op appointment in March and was seen by an anesthetist on May 2. She then saw her doctor again on May 7. Her hospital later sent her a letter informing her that the cost to the public purse of these two visits was 217 euros, as part of a policy in the healthcare system to increase awareness among the public of the price of medical treatment for the state. The Bellvitge Hospital confirmed this, but declined to make any further comment. "If they take too long, they'll have to carry out all the tests again," she explains.

The hospitals in Catalonia are under a huge amount of pressure. Since 2010, when the cutbacks began to take effect, the waiting lists for the 14 procedures whose maximum waiting time is guaranteed by law at six months have risen exponentially. Between December 2011 and December 2012 alone they went up by 35 percent, according to statistics published by the regional health department. The procedure that Arajol is waiting for is not included in that list, although "the pain and the lower quality of life that this means is greater than that suffered by a patient with cataracts, which is on that list," explains an ophthalmologist from a hospital in the region.

Arajol is aware that there are more urgent cases than hers. "This is not a case of life or death," she says. But she is well aware of how uncomfortable life is for her in her current condition.

Pons, however, is much more concerned, given that his vertebrae are pinching the nerves in his spine. "The doctor who has to operate on me told me that my case was urgent, but that it wouldn't make any difference," he explains. "He told me that the Hospital Son Espases, in Palma, has closed down operating rooms, meaning that even if he wanted to, he couldn't do the operation for two years. My surgery is a complicated one, that would take all morning, and the man just hasn't got the time to do it."