Living in agony, Natalie's just one of 373,000 on hospital waiting lists
A woman living in constant agony from spinal pain has spoken about how she has been on an urgent waiting list for more than a year to see a surgeon.
Natalie Whan from Saintfield has suffered a degenerative disc disease since 2012. Despite being finally referred to a surgeon as an urgent case, she has faced 14 months of pain.
She has spoken to the Belfast Telegraph as concern over Northern Ireland's soaring waiting lists continues to grow.
"There are days when I can't even put on socks, I'm in such pain," she said.
"I had one MRI with a spinal team but was told I needed to see a surgeon and have a second MRI, so my doctor gave me an urgent referral, but I'm still waiting."
The 52-year-old said: "I don't know when I'm going to get the scan on my spine or see a surgeon. I'm on so much medication and painkillers. I don't approve of having to take it, but there is nothing else I can do. There are good days and bad but there are times I'm in such pain even lying down is agony."
"Your everyday life is affected. It is frustrating and depressing."
Natalie spoke out as the waiting list crisis grows and amid warnings that patients could die if the situation is not addressed. Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust health body, said he had concerns about the current levels of waiting lists in Northern Ireland.
He said that "heads would roll" if the same level of waiting times was seen in some of England's hospitals.
Ms Whan said she had to give up two cleaning jobs because of her health.
"It was just too much," she said.
"I know there are other people - those with cancer - who are probably worse off than me, but the fact that so many people are having to wait in pain or fear of not knowing what their diagnosis is, that's just completely wrong."
Ms Whan is just one of thousands of patients on an escalating waiting list.
Current figures reveal a staggering 373,000 patients are in line for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or inpatient treatment at hospitals across the region.
There are now 85,997 patients waiting over four months to see a specialist for the first time.
Across all hospitals in the Belfast Trust, 5,755 are waiting for an MRI scan and there are 376 people waiting for more than 26 weeks.
Latest cancer waiting times reveal that 63,028 patients are now waiting up to six weeks, while those waiting between six and nine weeks add up to 20,192.
Worryingly, of the 106 patients treated who waited longer than 62 days, 31 were diagnosed with urological cancer and 18 were diagnosed with lower gastrointestinal cancer.
Everyone needing an appointment should be seen within 18 weeks, according to Government guidelines, but the number of people waiting for over four months has quadrupled from 20,000 to more than 80,000 in just a year,
Janice Smyth, Director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said nurses felt "bitterly disappointed and demoralised" by the growing pressures.
"We should have a world-class health and social care service," she said.
"Instead, we have a health and social care service that does not have an agreed budget or commissioning plan and a department with no minister that is failing to provide the strategic leadership and direction to bring about the reform and modernisation that is required.
"The staff who work in the health and social care system, and the people who depend on it, are being badly let down."