Woman forced to sell her jewellery for operation to save eyesight

Limerick woman was on two-year waiting list to have the procedure done publicly

In an RTÉ Prime Time special looking at the gap between public and private health care service in Ireland Mary Comber explains how she had to sell off her jewellery to pay for cataract surgery. Video: RTÉ

 

A 75-year-old woman on a public waiting list for eye surgery was forced to sell her jewellery to pay for a private operation before she went blind.

Mary Comber, from Limerick, had been on a waiting list for two years at University Hospital Limerick’s ophthalmology department. At the time there were 1,200 patients awaiting a procedure at the department, with 400 waiting for more than a year.

Waiting times for cataract surgeries are up to four years in some other parts of the country.

Ms Comber was blind in one eye and had failing eyesight in the other. She required surgery to save her sight.

“To me the wait seems forever,” she told RTÉ Investigates before the surgery. “And it’s affecting me in lots of different ways. I don’t want to start crying now, but it is. I don’t mean to be a nuisance, and I don’t want to take anybody’s place. I don’t want to jump queues. I just want it done.”

Public hospital consultants, who should be working a maximum of one day a week in private care, are working two to three times that amount, according to an investigation by RTÉ.

This means patients such as Ms Comber have to wait far longer for procedures under the public system.

Ms Comber said her failing eyesight was increasing her feeling of vulnerability. “I’m always conscious of shadows. I’d look out the top window every night to show myself that there is no one around. I get frightened,” she said.

“I just have to do the best I can. I lock up. But what would I do if somebody broke in.”

She decided to travel to Dublin to sell all her jewellery so she could pay for a private operation on one of her eyes.

“I brought everything I had. I didn’t bother about whether I’d ever wear it again. It wasn’t important. Getting my eye done was important.”

She went to the private practice of her ophthalmologist at the University Hospital Limerick and was told she could have the procedure done within two months but that it would cost nearly €1,800.

As she was able to pay she got her procedure done at the same public hospital within two months rather than two years. She is currently back on the public waiting list to have her other eye done.

“I probably feel like a bit of a hypocrite. But there isn’t anything else available to me. I want my sight done now,” Ms Comber said.

Dr David Keegan told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today that average waiting times for eye surgery are six to 12 months, but in some parts of the country it can be up to four years.

He said the vast majority of consultants do a good job of balancing public and private patients, but admitted some work practices had developed out of a poorly funded health programme.

Dr Keegan, who operates from the Mater Private hospital in Dublin, said the public/private hours worked by consultants are monitored in the Mater Private, and if a consultant exceeded hours they would get a note from the clinical director.

Consultants who exceed the hours in their contract could be sanctioned, he said, but he did not know of any who had been sanctioned.

Dr Keegan added he did not think it was right for a patient to pay for private treatment in a public hospital and that he had not been aware of that practice.

However, he acknowledged that in some parts of the country there are no private hospitals so consultants would have to operate in public hospitals.