Belfast Telegraph

The best things in life are free, and that includes NHS

By Una Brankin

Here is a tale of two lumps. The first was found by a friend when she was having a shower at home in Co Louth. There's a history of breast cancer in her mother's family so she paid €50 (£43) to see her GP the next day. He sent her for an ultrasound scan, which cost €200 (£171), a week later.

It showed up a suspicious mass so she was sent to hospital in Dublin two weeks later for a biopsy. This was covered by her health insurance, which costs herself and her husband €2,000 (£1,719) per year.

She waited 10 days for the results of the biopsy. During that time she had to bring her six month-old baby to the doctor and pay €18 (£15.48) for a tiny enema for him, and a further €15.99 (£13.75) for a tube of anti-itch cream for herself, on top of the €50 (£43) GP fee. This was during the particulary bad snowfall of last winter and on the morning the results were due, the roads all around her home were treacherous. She phoned the hospital to see if they'd give her the results over the phone. They refused; it was against standard practice.

So she nervously headed to Dublin, paying almost €30 (£26) for four M1 tolls, two tunnel toll charges and parking fees. Due to the state of the roads she was an hour-and-a-half late and had to wait another hour to be seen and told she had a non-malignant fibroid. She drove home relieved but broke, with a higher health insurance bill to look forward too.

The other lump in question was mine, found in the same part of the body, in the shower around the same time, but in Belfast. I went to my GP the next day. She referred me to the City Hospital's Breast Clinic, where I had an appointment within a week. There I had an examination by a surgeon who sent me down the hall for a mammogram.

As I sat in the waiting room, feeling vulnerable with a dozen other women in those unflattering capes the nurses give you to throw on, I wondered how many of us would walk out of there filled with even more dread. It was obviously the first time for some, like me, with trepidation written all over their pale, pinched faces. Others were unconcerned, more interested in the banal day-time TV on the flatscreen.

To take my mind off the fear, I sat there trying to add up how much this would have cost so far for my friend from the Republic. I added what I thought the mammography would cost, and the biopsy I'd have the same day if they didn't like what they found, plus a consultation on a treatment plan before I was sent home. I was still trying to figure it out when I was whisked in for the mammography and squashed between those cold hard plates of the big scary space-age machine. I've never felt so bovine but the nurses couldn't have been nicer.

"Oh that's a simple cyst," the boss one declared, pointing it out on the scan I was shown immediately afterwards. "Would you like to have it drained now?"

I said I'd take my chances on it imploding itself, which was a likelihood, and went off happily to get changed. Then to be even more impressively thorough, I was told to go see the surgeon on my way out, just in case I had any questions. I did: what causes cysts? Answer: Age mostly. Great.

Anyway, total cost of my lump experience and the smooth professional medical service I received was zero. The mini-nightmare was over within a week. Compare that to my Co Louth friend's costly month-long ordeal and you might think twice before denouncing the NHS outright.

Of course it has its failings, as this week's latest report shows in scary detail – but we really don't know how lucky we are here with our GP service. The NHS may not be perfect, but we women of the North should count our blessings when it comes to what they can offer us for free.

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