Barbara Sturgess, who suffers from osteoarthritis, had been waiting to have her right knee joint replaced for 13 months. Yesterday she was recovering well in France as one of the first British patients to get surgery abroad on the NHS.
At first the NHS told her it would be 12 months before her operation would be done. But in December, East Kent health authority told her the list had lengthened to 15 months and asked if she would go abroad for the treatment.
"I was told it would probably be Germany, but then they rang back a week later and said it would be France," said Mrs Sturgess, 63. "I was originally with the Buckland Hospital in Dover, but they had stopped doing the operation. So then I moved to the William Harvey in Ashford. I said yes, and in three weeks it was all arranged – we were on our way.
"The pain is very debilitating. I had my left knee done about three years ago, and should have had this one done at the same time. But they gave me some pills and said they wanted to see how I would get on."
Yesterday, finally, she was recovering at a plush private hospital in Lille, in northern France.
On Friday, with nine other NHS patients, and about four times as many journalists, photographers and camera crews, she had taken the Eurostar train from Ashford Internationalto Lille. On the way, she had been chatting with the other patients, the first of about 200 NHS patients who will be sent to the Clinique de la Louvière over the next three months in a government pilot project to cut NHS waiting lists.
On arrival in France a small media scrum grew, fuelled, perhaps, by Gallic pride that the English needed to send their sick over for some proper treatment. French TV cameras and microphones followed the party up the station platform.
"We are here," said the husband of one patient, "because in England they are closing hospitals and cutting the number of beds. This a political coup for France."
Mrs Sturgess and four others who needed joint replacements will convalesce at the hospital for about 16 days. The hospital's facilities may help ease their discomfort. Patients rest in their own rooms, which have cable TV, telephone and en suite bathrooms. They will get English TV, English papers, English food, and cups of tea.
"It's all tickety boo," said Barbara's son, Phil Sturgess, after his mother had settled in her room. "I'm staying in the room with her for a £20 charge. There's a pull-down bed, and I get fed as well. This hospital is fresher, brighter, cleaner and more efficient than anything we would have at home."
Within 12 hours of being admitted to the hospital Mrs Sturgess had had her surgery.
"Everything's fine," Mr Sturgess said yesterday. "She's in the recovery room for a couple of hours yet. But as far as I know, it's all gone OK."
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