Edna Irwin was walking into town one morning when she felt a searing pain travel through her body. It gripped her suddenly and lasted only minutes but she felt utterly immobilised by the crushing sensation.

The 69-year-old from Darlington dismissed the attack as an aberration until she had another and it then began to recur daily. Weeks later, she was diagnosed with angina and given a hospital appointment. That was in January 2000.

Six months later, she was put on a waiting list for a double heart bypass, where she has stayed for 18 months. Her hopes were raised when Labour promised to ensure that heart patients waited no longer than one year.

But nothing happened until June when she was told she could be referred to a private hospital near Newcastle to have her operation in the "very near future" if she wished. Mrs Irwin accepted the offer immediately.

She heard nothing until she was told her operation would take place in January 2002. "It's been an awful waiting game and I know that some people have died waiting.

"I've been so annoyed by the wait because my life has been held in limbo. I cannot go on holiday with my husband, I cannot plan the future because I am simply waiting for this operation to get my life back," said Mrs Irwin, who is married to a retired technician, David.

Ms Irwin said that yesterday's announcement was "very late coming", but she hoped patients in the future would reap the rewards. Under the scheme, they will be contacted by their local hospital after waiting six months and given the choice of an operation at another heart unit in the United Kingdom or Europe. The costs will be met by the NHS and patients assured "continuity of care" at their local hospital when they return home.

"This sort of scheme should have come a lot earlier; no one should have to wait like this when there are empty beds in some European countries. I would even have been willing to have paid my own air fare to Germany if the scheme had come earlier," said Mrs Irwin. "Any improvement to the system would be welcome but I have listened to Mr Milburn for so long that I wonder if, while he hopes for this new initiative, whether it will actually go anywhere or not."

Mrs Irwin uses a mouth spray every day and takes a number of prescribed tablets to fend off the pain, but her 18-month wait has not always been easy. She has suffered breathlessness and regular bouts of fatigue, which have left her fearful of taking a short walk or doing some housework in the morning.