'I’ve been told I’d have the surgery in a week if I had VHI'

Seven years on hospital waiting list, Caroline Devlin criticises 'two-tier' system

Caroline Devlin (42) from Clondalkin in Dublin has been on a waiting list for neck surgery at Tallaght hospital for seven years.

In February she was told the hospital did not have an operating microscope necessary to complete her surgery “safely”.

She is due to have CT and MRI scans in June in preparation for the surgery, but has been told the operation is not possible unless this equipment is bought.

A former office manager with Superquinn, she developed neck stiffness in early 2008.


“I felt a crunch and couldn’t move my neck up or down or left to right. I went to my GP and was referred to Tallaght hospital, where I was sent first for physiotherapy. But that was making things worse so it stopped.”

She was diagnosed with cervical degenerative disc disease, a condition in which spinal discs narrow and cause severe vertebral pain, in August 2008. She was told she would need a procedure to remove the degenerating discs, known as a discectomy, to relieve pressure on her spinal nerves and possibly a bone graft to stabilise her spine.

In October 2009, scheduled surgery was cancelled “due to the necessity to deal with critical cases following instructions from the HSE”, she was told in a letter from the admissions department.

Since then, her condition has deteriorated. While discs three and four were degenerating in 2008, discs five and six are now also degenerating.

A mother and grandmother, she had to give up work, sport and most housework and has been treated for depression. She is on eight different painkillers and medications and attends Tallaght’s emergency department “about twice a month” for steroid injections to help manage pain.

“My two sons – they’re 26 and 20 – notice a massive change in me, and my partner, I know he worries about me. I am very easily upset, cry easily now. I don’t sleep. I’ve put on weight. My whole life has changed. I can’t even hold my granddaughter – she’s three months old. That really upsets me.”


On January 20th her GP Dr Kathryn de Forge wrote to the hospital asking for her surgery to be “expedited”.

“Her symptoms have deteriorated over the last few weeks. Now pins and needles in all fingers and decrease in grip strength and constant neck pain and headache,” she wrote.

On February 19th, her consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Patrick Kiely wrote to the hospital’s chief executive.

“This lady has been on my waiting list for surgery. She has cervical disc degeneration and requires cervical discectomy and fusion . . . She is one of the patients on my list but we certainly need to have an operating microscope available for her surgery to be completed safely.

“As previously corresponded with your office on this matter, we are waiting for this equipment now for a long time . . . Once an operating microscope is available we can schedule appropriately.”

Health insurance

Devlin wishes she had the foresight in her 30s when she was working full-time to take out health insurance. Now on illness benefit of €188 per week, she cannot afford it.

“I’ve been told I’d have the surgery in a week if I had VHI. It really is a two-tier system. I want to work. I don’t want be a statistic on welfare. I am not a number, I am a human being. I get really down and really angry.”

A spokesman said: “Tallaght hospital cannot comment on individual patient cases in order to protect patient confidentiality and due to data protection issues. In relation to the acquisition of equipment, €11 million of funding provided by the HSE has been invested in capital equipment replacement at Tallaght hospital in the last four years.

“All new equipment purchases and equipment upgrades are prioritised on a medical need basis and in accordance with available budgets. The purchase of the subject piece of equipment is currently under consideration by the hospital.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times