“Can you just not go all Australian about things, for once,” my partner whispers in the “don’t go showing me up at Mass” tone favoured by mothers.
We are sitting in a waiting room trying to get medical treatment. But we live in Ireland. For the uninitiated, these two seemingly unrelated facts shouldn’t have a “but” between them.
Ireland is a wealthy country with higher marginal tax rates applied to lower-income thresholds. A decent chunk of that is allocated to health spending. I don’t mind it as a concept: tax is our monthly subscription rate to things we need to keep life ticking along smoothly, such as receiving medical care quickly when we need it.
It’s the little things that make me smile: universal public healthcare, adequate staffing, the ability to access services and direct ministerial accountability. That’s just the kind of happy-go-lucky girl I am.
Then one Friday afternoon, my eyes decide they are knocking off work without warning. There is no pain and no injury. Instead, they seem to be quiet-quitting, leaving me unable to focus or read.
There is a small chance I might be having a stroke. But there is also the certain embarrassment I will die from if I do go in and the staff roll their eyes at me for wasting their time
Luckily, just by typing a symptom into Google you can find out all the ways you might be dying. “Blurred vision” brings up a lot of results. A nurse on a hotline tells me to go to the nearest emergency department.
Which I would have had I been in Sydney. The longest I’d waited at my local ER, which happened to be on the nightclub strip, was Halloween weekend. Even then I was admitted in less than 45 minutes, just after a student dressed as Superman had cut the line because his shoulder blade was quite obviously not where it should be (assuring staff he was “all good” because he’d taken “a load of pingers” (ecstasy) and couldn’t feel a thing.
But here in Ireland, going in on a Friday night as the pubs are closing will probably mean still being in the waiting room on Saturday morning.
All I need is a doctor to tell me if my retina is detaching, or possibly just some eye drops. I don’t want to be bothering the HSE emergency departments already overcrowded with poor little old ladies on trolleys in corridors with what could be a very benign non-problem with my eye. There is a small chance I might be having a stroke. But there is also the certain embarrassment I will die from if I do go in and the staff roll their eyes at me for wasting their time over an infection that could be solved with a trip to Boots.
So I go to a private rapid clinic early on Saturday, hoping to beat all the soccer kids with freshly torn ACLs, and men whose wives have told them they have no business getting up on that ladder but do it anyway. The clinic costs €140 minimum for those without health insurance. For this price I expect chandeliers, someone playing a piano in the foyer and Aesop soap in the loo. What I get is a basic and busy clinic with doctors just doing their best. We are paying €140 for the equivalent free clinic I take my grandmother to in one of Sydney’s most disadvantaged areas. And I have to wait longer.
In the end, a lovely doctor tells me to go to the hospital anyway because it “could be serious”, but I can’t just go in. I have to call first, leave my number then they will call me back in an hour. Except they don’t. When I ring again the staff member, annoyed, tired and harassed, says she has called me three times. She then realises she has taken my number down wrong.
When I get there, they tell me I’ll be charged €100 because the first clinic has given me the wrong referral letter.
I am sitting in the waiting room, refusing to let my lack of clear sight stop me from giving out about the health system, which can be described as “in a state” on a good day and “in a shambles” on a bad one.
That’s when I am asked to stop being “all Australian about it”.
“Being all Australian” is rarely a problem when I am shooing spiders out of the bath, more so when expecting systems to work.
A woman in the waiting room has been there for hours with her husband. She is worried about his condition deteriorating, the longer they sit. “Yes, well, things could always be worse,” she says, to herself I think
Maybe it’s because we are entitled. We feel we deserve free healthcare, affordable drugs and to get help when we need it without worrying about wait times or cost. Governments that fail to provide that are not tolerated. We get awfully cranky. We demand a lot. But in some ways, we get it.
A woman in the waiting room has been there for hours with her husband. She is worried about his condition deteriorating, the longer they sit.
“Yes, well things could always be worse,” she says, to herself I think. It’s a consoling line we say a lot in Ireland. But what if we asked for things to be better?
For people in charge to stop telling us things cannot change or that they’ve always been bad or that it’s complicated or the fault of some previous government, so go and take it up with them, please.
There is little incentive for the people who have the power to make things better if we keep telling ourselves things could be worse. It stops us from feeling entitled to things we deserve.