Woman with brain lesions and MS faces year-long wait to see neurologist
More than a month after learning she has brain lesions and Multiple Sclerosis at the age of just 24, a Co Antrim woman has been told she faces a year-long delay to see a neurologist. As the biggest ever patient recall in Northern Ireland concludes, health correspondent Seanin Graham speaks to the young woman about the impact of lengthy neurology waiting times.
ON a Monday morning in May, Kerri Ann Flanagan woke up and was found she was completely blind in one eye.
The terrifying moment had been preceded by five years of suffering chronic pain, paralysis and excruciating headaches.
After numerous trips to A&E and being discharged with painkillers and a diagnosis of migranes, the Newtownabbey woman attended the emergency eye clinic at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast after losing her sight.
"I had blurred vision on a Friday but by the Monday I had lost my vision completely in my left eye. It was absolutely awful, I was so, so scared," she said.
"Two years ago I became completely paralysed down my left side and went to A&E - but it was put down to something more minor. I was made to feel my health problems were trivial."
Ms Flanagan was assessed by a specialist eye consultant who revealed her optic nerve was so swollen she needed to be immediately admitted to hospital for five days for intravenous (IV) steroid treatment.
If she wasn't quickly treated with the IV drugs, she would go blind in both eyes.
"The consultant was excellent from the get-go and asked me about my previous symptoms. She told me there was a very good chance I could have Multiple Sclerosis. I never in a million years thought I had MS as I am so young and there is no history of it in my family."
Assuming she would be quickly referred to a neurologist, she instead underwent an MRI scan.
Six weeks later an "emergency" call from her GP, who had been forwarded the test results, confirmed she had 10 lesions on her brain and exposed nerve cells - with an almost conclusive diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
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Ms Flanagan, who is engaged to be married, said she prepared herself for the 'potential outcome' of MS - but part of her still hoped it would be something less serious.
"I was going out of my mind with worry trying to get the MRI results and kept phoning each day as there delays in them getting processed. I knew it was bad when my GP was trying to get hold of me but I just couldn't believe I had 10 brain lesions. The protective sheath on my nerve cells was also exposed which meant there is an effect on my central nervous system...it explained my terrible symptoms," she added.
"There are days when I feel like I am drunk and have difficulty speaking and can barely chew or swallow."
An urgent 'red flag' GP referral was made for an appointment with one of the Royal's ten neurologists.
The referral coincided with the biggest ever patient recall in the Northern Ireland health service, with more than 2,500 cases re-assessed following 'safety concerns' about the work of consultant neurologist, Dr Michael Watt.
While the Belfast trust insist the massive recall has had no impact on waiting times, sources have told the Irish News that this is "simply not true".
Despite the severity of Ms Flanagan's condition, the 24-year-old was devastated to learn that she faces a year-long wait to get a first appointment with a neurologist.
"I rang the booking appointment line a couple of times and was told that the urgent neurology patients being seen now were referred over a year ago, so I should expect to wait a year," Ms Flanagan added.
Due to the delays, she also inquired about going down the private route. However, it transpired there is a three-month waiting list for a £200 private consultation with a neurologist - who does not even specialise in MS.
As she endures the delay, the only medication the young woman can receive is that prescribed by her GP.
"A neurologist is the only person who can prescribe specialist treatment and I am so anxious my condition is going to get worse," Ms Flanagan said.
"I had perfect health and a normal life until five years ago, now I feel nothing in my life is certain anymore. I am at a loss."
The Irish News asked the Belfast trust to comment on the case as well as the number of urgent neurology patients facing delays. No-one was able for comment.