A County Armagh woman with complex medical needs has said her quality of life has improved “immeasurably” since she moved to Wales to access shorter medical waiting lists last year.
Felicity McKee, 28, who has fibromyalgia and osteoporosis, said she is unsure if she will ever be able to return home to Northern Ireland.
“If the health system stays as it is I can’t come back,” she told BBC News NI.
On Wednesday, a think tank published a damning report on waiting lists.
The Nuffield Trust cited a “culture of tight command and control at the heart of the health system” and said a “lack of ambition is getting in the way of tackling waiting times”.
Stormont’s Department of Health said it did not comment on individual cases.
However, it said significant investment was required to address the waiting list backlog, adding that it could not spend money it did not have.
‘My treatment was chaotic’
Ms McKee has had complex medical needs since she was admitted to hospital after a heart attack on her 21st birthday.
She has also suffered from depression and anorexia.
She was put on a waiting list for a specialist dietician for eating disorders in 2012.
She had still not accessed one when she left Northern Ireland in 2018.
In recent years, she had been on three separate waiting lists.
Describing her treatment as “chaotic”, she said: “I was passed from one person to the next and felt like no-one actually wanted to deal with me.
“At times I thought I was on a list and then I’d learn that I’d been taken off it.
“The physiotherapist I was referred to didn’t want to treat me because of my osteoporosis.
“The specialist occupational therapist said I should attend a pain clinic – then I wasn’t eligible for the pain clinic.”
‘Doctor shocked by medical history’
In a letter seen by BBC News NI, Ms McKee was turned down for a referral to a pain management programme because of her mental health issues.
That move was challenged by her GP, who told the Southern Health and Social Care Trust they believed she had been discriminated against.
The GP said Ms McKee “deserves a face-to-face assessment… as I am sure you offer to other patients”.
Ms McKee said her GP and other medics who “tried their best” showed great support but she felt there was “no joined-up approach”.
Last year, she was travelling to England to visit a friend when she became ill on a plane and was admitted to hospital in Bristol.
There, she said, a doctor assessed her medical history and “was shocked” at the standard of medical care she had received in Northern Ireland.
“He recommended that I should move to England to access better treatment,” she said.
‘Finally being taken seriously’
In England, waiting lists are much shorter than in Northern Ireland.
Even in Wales, the next worst performer, according to the Nuffield Trust report, a patient is nearly 50 times less likely to be waiting over a year for care than in Northern Ireland.
Ms McKee subsequently applied for and won a scholarship to Swansea University, where she began a PhD in September.
Since then her treatment has been “unrecognisable” from that which she received in Northern Ireland.
“In Wales, they immediately assigned me a case worker who was able to join the dots of my medical history,” she said.
Her physical and medical care were “treated as a whole rather than taking each issue in isolation”.
“I have a walk-in physio department in the local hospital; I have a direct line to a mental health crisis team.
“I feel like my illness is finally being taken seriously and I’m getting the care I need and my life has improved because of that.”