I’ve only ever spent the night in hospital once. I was nine, still had ground up pieces of our car’s windshield in my ears, and was forced to sleep on the Tweed Hospital emergency department’s floor for five hours until staff could find me a bed.
Ten years on, after a decade of healthcare austerity measures, overcrowding in regional hospitals has only worsened. In January this year, it was alleged patients at Ballina Hospital had resorted to lying on the floor whilst waiting for treatment in the emergency department, like I had in 2007. Last month, the Tweed Hospital media council called for an urgent expansion of Tweed’s emergency department after reports of people crossing the Queensland border to access treatment.
Lacking beds, staff and resources, it is no exaggeration to say that these hospitals are bursting at the seams.
Chronic underfunding has left our communities with a system at breaking point; nurses, doctors, allied health professionals and other staff in crisis. Unable to provide the beds or care desperately needed, patients are being turned away from North Coast hospitals, suffering avoidable complications, and in some cases, dying.
It is important to write about the experiences of the patients at the heart of this crisis, suffering unimaginable horrors as austerity only continues to worsen. One of those patients is my mum, Julie, now living paralysed with Guillain-barré Syndrome (GBS).
In October last year, Julie underwent surgery at Lismore Base Hospital. Later transferred to our local hospital in Murwillumbah, she was released within only a few days, a shortage of beds responsible for moving her on.
At home and not under the medical observation she should’ve been, she suffered complications and was admitted, comatose, to Tweed Hospital. She spent weeks between Gold Coast University Hospital and Robina Hospital before being diagnosed with GBS and receiving IVIG treatment.
GBS is a debilitating syndrome that attacks the peripheral nervous system. For many, GBS presents only acutely, with movement regained within weeks. For some, like Julie, it leads to life-threatening illness and permanent disability.
Spending months in the intensive care unit (ICU) with my mum, who now resides in a medical ward of Tweed Hospital, I’ve witnessed the consequences of our regional healthcare crisis. I’ve watched her lungs collapse after an understaffed decision to remove her tracheostomy. I’ve learnt of bundle branch blocks and heart attacks requiring resuscitation days later, with staff in ICU too short-handed to ring and notify us.
I’ve seen abuse and systemic negligence; a result not of any individual, but of a system ill-equipped to provide the care vulnerable people need.
Together we are now fighting another arm of the healthcare system — the disability sector — trying to secure National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) support. Through nothing more than bureaucratic loopholes, Julie has been deemed ineligible for support, meaning the equipment she needs to provide her with agency, like an electric wheelchair, is now out of reach.
As my mum’s part-time carer, makeshift lawyer and what sometimes seems like only advocate, I wake up angry everyday about the injustices of a healthcare system that has put her in this position.
But my mum isn’t the only person in this situation. There are hundreds of other people across the North Coast, and thousands beyond regional Australia who are slipping through the cracks and paying the price for a broken system. In Tasmania alone, peak health groups and unions have come out saying that sick Tasmanians have suffered “avoidable complications” and some have died because of chronic underfunding of the health system.
The last large mobilisation of people surrounding healthcare austerity was in February 2016, when the These Cuts Are Killing Us movement took to the streets in capital cities across Australia to protest the federal government’s moves to charge for blood tests, MRIs, X-rays, pap smears, urine tests, ultrasounds and more.
We need to be mobilising again, not just in our cities this time, but in our regional areas too, where communities are bearing the brunt of this chronic underfunding.
Change doesn’t occur when parliaments benevolently decide to make our lives better. Change occurs when working people mobilise to demand that governments do what’s right. We must be demanding the injection of billions of dollars — the same dollars spent on fighting imperialist wars or as tax cuts for the rich — into our healthcare system, so that our hospitals have the beds, resources and staff needed to save people’s lives. We should be organising, taking to the streets, engaging in direct action, circulating petitions and talking to friends and neighbours about this injustice.
My mum will probably never get to hug me again. She will never walk or a lead a normal life because, months ago, there weren’t enough beds to look after her.
Like I said, it is important to write about the experiences of the patients at the heart of this crisis. But what is more important is to imagine, organise and fight for a world in which this doesn’t happen.
With thanks to Holly Brooke’s advice, words and unconditional support.