NHS computer said no to cancer surgery when real answer was yes – Susan Morrison

Susan was greeted by a cross between Theresa May and a 1960s bus conductress when she called the ‘Waiting List Office’Susan was greeted by a cross between Theresa May and a 1960s bus conductress when she called the ‘Waiting List Office’
Susan was greeted by a cross between Theresa May and a 1960s bus conductress when she called the ‘Waiting List Office’
Susan Morrison was shocked to receive a letter saying her surgery for cancer had been delayed, only to discover, after a rather difficult phone call, that the letter had been sent in error.

My nice surgeon assured me that my surgery for cancer would be in the next few weeks. Tremendous relief all around. Then shock and surprise when the letter came. It was very nice, I’ll grant you that. NHS Lothian were full of apologies, but due to Covid-19, all surgery was delayed. No idea when it was going to start up again.

Cancer doesn’t respond to pep-talks along the lines of, slow down, lads, there’s a plague afoot that’s stealing your limelight. Surely the NHS couldn’t abandon people who need surgery to stay alive? Especially not me. I’ve been applauding vigorously.

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I thought, best check this out before starting a small riot. The letter was signed “Yours sincerely, Waiting List Office”. Odd name. You’ll not get that on a mug in a tartan tat gift shop.

There was a number. I called. I said “Hello, got this letter, it’s a bit worrying. Can I talk to someone? My surgery is for cancer, it doesn’t hang about.”

The answering voice had the snarl of a 1960s bus conductress and the empathy of Theresa May. There was no lightness in this tone. “Well, dear,” rasped this keeper of the medical procedure dates, “there’s a pandemic on. All surgery has been cancelled.”

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She said this with deep satisfaction, as if she thought she had long felt that our hospitals look pristine until pesky patients clog the wards with their hips, hernias and spleens. “The only surgery going ahead is for cancer patients,” she concluded, triumphantly.

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Sometimes, it is worth the diagnosis for the impact of the words. “I do have cancer. As I said at the beginning of the conversation.”

The voice of the WLO flew into mild panic, minor concern, and even a touch of outrage, but still the snap of irritation for daring to call and question the working of the NHS.

The computer said no, but the answer was yes. The computer sends all these letters out automatically. It can’t distinguish between the cancer surgery and boil lancing, despite the fact that this pandemic, which, thank you, WLO, I am aware of, has been with us since March. Surely someone, somewhere in NHS Lothian could have reprogrammed the fabled computers to spot cancer patients and winnow them out, thus sparing them further anxiety. Laura implied that the surgeons just waltzed off and did their thing, the little devils, and left the rest of the NHS wandering about guessing their intentions.

To prove her knowledge of the world of these naughty surgeons, she swung into medical-speak, with much use of acronyms and abbrevations such as HPB, HEPA and HipHipHorray. “Stop you there,” said I to my new-found friend. “Can I just ask, are you a surgeon?”

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The answer will live with me for some time. She said ‘Not as such, no, dear’ A phrase, I think, we can all take onboard. Should we ever find ourselves with a pregnant woman fainted at our feet, labour pains having come on swift and all around us people screaming for doctors in the house, I feel we can all now step forward with confidence and issue orders for boiling water and towels.

Should someone dare dispute your professional standing, lift your head boldly and clearly say “Not as such, no”.

Thank you, WLO, for opening that door of opportunity for all.

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