14 Dec 2008

A sting in the tail

It was just three years ago when I found myself sitting in front of Prime Minister Patrick Manning in the San Fernando constituency office.  My mother had recently passed away after a 16 month battle with cancer. My aunt, who was a registered nurse and worked on a cancer ward for many years in one of the most renowned hospitals in the US, accompanied me to the meeting-she was pivotal in making my mother's long fight and eventual passing away as painless and peaceful as possible.  We came to present a proposal and to seek assistance or guidance from the Prime Minister.  The proposal was a simple one-to setup a non-profit organisation to supply much needed drugs, equipment and professional services for anyone in need of cancer treatment or who be in the last stages of life.

At the time of my mother's diagnosis, she had Stage 3C ovarian cancer-the doctors said frankly-If you keep her in Trinidad, she may last 3 months for the most. They also stated that the survival rate for stage 3 cancer in Trinidad is zero. My family and I were fortunate enough to be in a position to send my mother abroad for treatment in part because she had major medical insurance. But, even with the insurance, my brother and I were still left with over half a million dollars in loan debt.

When my mother returned to Trinidad to continue her chemotherapy we couldn't find the drugs in Trinidad; we had to bring them in from abroad. When we had to administer her treatment, my aunt had to show the doctors how to hook up her port-o-cath because in Trinidad we still administer through the skin. When the pain became too much, we had to import the transdermal patches for her pain management.  When we finally got a prescription for IV morphine for her pain, we were subjected to a half hour interrogation by the suppliers while my mother was lying home in pain.  When she slipped into a coma my aunt stayed awake almost 20 hours a day because we couldn't find any registered nurse that knew how to use a port-o-cath. When we had to put her on oxygen, she almost suffocated one day because there is no medical supplier of oxygen tanks and regulators for such an occasion. My mother's wish was to die at home as I'm sure most people would want. Yet to pull that off, we had to beg, borrow and...

During this whole ordeal, my family and I realised one very sobering point-getting cancer treatment and being able to afford it was something very few people in Trinidad could do.  And to add insult to injury, after you've wiped out your finances trying to give your loved ones a longer and better quality of life before they pass on, you can barely afford or even find the facilities to allow them to die with dignity, in peace and with no pain.

Back to the meeting with Prime Minister Manning-in response to our proposal which had the support of many prominent doctors, specialists and surgeons in Trinidad as well as the assistance of my mother's specialist from the US, the Prime Minister suggested that we partner with a hospice in the US to open a facility in Trinidad.  My mouth dropped, my heart stopped and my eyes looked down at the floor.  We had just explained how expensive treatment was in the private institutions (Nursing Homes) and how lacking the facilities, drugs and services were and we are now being told to try a hospice that is even more expensive than anything offered in Trinidad at the time.

I honestly cannot say if anything with regards to cancer treatment has changed in Trinidad since that faithful day and I suspect not, since the Prime Minister himself is travelling to Cuba for his treatment.  I wish him a speedy recovery; this dreadful disease is something I wish no-one should ever have to go through or see their loved one go through.  But to this day, I am astounded that our Government, past and present cannot give the health sector the attention it so desperately needs. Sometimes you either can't understand or refuse to understand the reality of certain situations-until it hits home. Mr Manning, if there is ever a legacy you want to leave, let it be that you revolutionised the health sector in the Trinidad.

Suzette Ramsden