Rather than suffer agonising pain for two years, Alf McCreary paid £10,500 to have a hip replacement in Dublin. His message to politicians: there's no such thing as an Orange or Green hip... so sort out our health service
Our Religion Correspondent reveals how, through an EU directive, he was able to dip into savings to pay for surgery. While he can claim a rebate, he feels for those people unable to afford the scheme and left to suffer in silence
In 1967, three years after I joined this newspaper as a young reporter straight from Queen's University, I spent more than two weeks travelling across the USA from coast to coast by Greyhound bus. It was a remarkable offer of "99 Days for 99 Dollars" and I enjoyed every moment, or most of it, traversing the plains of the mid-west and eventually arriving at San Francisco to stay with an old Queen's friend, Andy Duffin, from Belfast.
It was a heady experience, including a surprise trip to an auditorium in the hills above San Francisco to hear the legendary Duke Ellington and his orchestra in full swing.
One of the main highlights was mingling with the hippies of San Francisco when the flower power generation was at its height.
I returned to a much less exciting Belfast, with the bright memories of the San Francisco hippies gradually being overcome by the harshness of the old Orange versus Green reality, which has paralysed our political life.
More recently, however, I have reluctantly become a 'hippie' again, this time because of a painful right hip which for several years has caused me sleepless nights and difficulties in walking during the day.
Of course, I am not alone in this. I am aware that thousands of people share the same painful problem, as well as thousands of other NHS patients who struggle with more severe, and in many cases life-threatening, challenges.
For quite some time I went to physiotherapists. They helped with the pain, but it was clear that the problem was much deeper than anything that might be resolved with regular massage and manipulation.
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Eventually, I struggled along to out-patient X-ray appointments and an MRI scan. I was then told by my GP that I needed a total hip replacement.
Accordingly, I joined the waiting list for an appointment with a consultant orthopaedic surgeon. A couple of months later, I had my first consultation at a Belfast hospital.
The consultant and his registrar confirmed that I needed a new hip, but despite my nightly sleeplessness and daily discomfort, I was told the waiting time in Belfast was between 18 and 24 months and there was nothing they could do for me in the meantime.
They were caring and helpful, but I was doomed to at least another 18 months of pain if I was to depend on the NHS.
However, they did tell me about a European directive whereby a member of one EU state can receive quicker treatment in a fellow member state and receive a financial rebate.
While this was a potential solution, it also raised two problems: which member state would be most suitable and how could I pay the significant cost of private treatment?
The first thing was to try and get myself on the European list through the commissioning directorate of the Health and Social Care Board.
As advised, I applied to the organisation direct and, after a short delay, was told that, yes, my case qualified for the European scheme.
After some research, I discovered that many people from Northern Ireland travel to Lithuania or the Republic for hip replacement surgery.
Although Lithuania was cheaper, I chose Dublin because it was closer to home.
Following further research, I chose the excellent Sports Surgery Clinic in the Irish capital. It offered me a hip replacement operation within two months - a stark contrast to what the NHS was able to offer.
The next challenge was to provide the money. Since I do not have private insurance, I was forced to dip into my life savings. Like a true child of the Second World War, I was always told to put something away for a rainy day, which I had done. This was one of those rainy days.
The total package cost approximately £10,500. I will receive a proportional rebate in due course, although each case is different. In the case of Dublin, the cost of several return visits for consultations, pre-op and post-op assessments and, in some cases, hotel accommodation, will be extra.
Some people might say that I am lucky to be able to afford it, but that is beside the point.
I resent the fact that, having paid full income taxes in a 50-plus-year working career, I still have to dip deeply into my own pocket to pay for an operation which is taken care of by the national health service in most other major European states for free and in a short space of time.
I went ahead and had the surgery last month in Dublin. Despite one complication, it went well and I am now recuperating, though it took more out of me than I had anticipated.
Some people blandly say, "You will be walking in no time", but the fact remains that it is a significant operation.
I am thankful that all has gone well so far and I am indebted to the skill and kindness of medical and nursing staff working in Dublin and those involved in my earlier treatment in Belfast. These people are heroes, particularly in our NHS system, which is falling apart.
My story is just one of countless similar stories, but you have to go through the inconvenience, uncertainty and pain to realise what long waiting lists and a lack of treatment are really like.
What also gives me a different kind of continued pain is watching the appalling blame game between the major local parties, who have done nothing in the past three years except posture their ideologies.
The absence of our politicians from Stormont, including that of a health minister, is a total disgrace.
Despite what the politicians on both sides say, the reality is that for many, but not all, their political agendas are much more important than the welfare of the public.
A GP from Castlederg voiced my long-held views on television recently. He expressed astonishment that people were not out on the streets in large numbers to demand better government and better healthcare in what is supposed to be a civilised society.
There is no such thing as an Orange or Green hip. There is only a hip giving intense pain, like many other distressing medical conditions.
This pain will continue until we wise up and start thinking about the kind of society we not only want but deserve and produce politicians who can help bring this about.
What we do not need is more deadlock, more pain and more despair.
My thoughts today are of gratitude for the skills of my surgeon, other senior medical colleagues, the nursing staff and the physiotherapists who helped take away the awful pain I had suffered.
I am also immensely grateful for the kindness of strangers. During a trip to London in August to hear the Ulster Orchestra at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, I was heavily dependent on my black stick. However, I was warmed and surprised by the generosity of people who gave me their seats on the London Underground and on trains, and the others - mostly young people - who went out of their way to carry my suitcase up and down stairs.
I was kept in hospital in Dublin for two days longer than the average because of the post-op complications that are now being successfully treated.
I therefore found myself needing new pyjamas. In a place more than 100 miles from home, I could not ask my wife or one of our sons to nip round the corner and buy me a pair.
I mentioned this to my hospital ward companion, a lovely man called Paul from Donegal town. He said: "They've just told me I'm being discharged, so take this new spare set of pyjamas from me as a present."
That might not seem much to an outsider, but in those particular circumstances, it meant a lot to me. That is the kind of thing you do not forget at Christmas, the season of giving, or indeed all the year round.