Caithness health campaigners have expressed their fear that tragedy will strike before vital services are reinstated in the county.
Maternity and women’s health services at Caithness General Hospital were downgraded in 2016 on safety grounds.
However, locals have long fought for their return to avoid lengthy journeys to Inverness to access what they deem basic healthcare provision.
‘It is our human right to have good quality of care’
Campaigners have previously called for an independent review to be conducted to ensure residents of Caithness are being offered their “human right to have good quality care”.
A petition has been lodged, which closes on Monday, to re-emphasise their plea to decision makers.
Women’s health campaigner Kirsteen Campbell has expressed great concern.
She fears that if a woman were to suffer a haemorrhage or an ectopic pregnancy whilst en route to Raigmore from Caithness, she feels there would not be enough time or medical resources on board an ambulance to assist the woman.
‘Home doesn’t feel safe anymore’
She said: “I do believe there is going to be a death and it is going to be a gynaecological death.
“We have no emergency protocols for haemorrhage or an ectopic pregnancy.
“We lost our services because of baby safety, but nothing was ever looked at for women’s safety.
“All these changes came about for the safety of women. Don’t get me wrong it had to change, the model wasn’t safe. But what we have got now is more unsafe.
“We really need change now. It really is home doesn’t feel safe anymore.”
Three year waits are ‘mentally destroying’
Mrs Campbell has said some women have faced waits of up to three years prior to Covid just to be diagnosed, with others waiting for operations.
She added: “Endometriosis can grow quicker than cancer. It can cause more damage in a quicker time and it can be really quite devastating as it can fuse organs together.
“The longer that somebody has got to wait, the more damage it is doing to their body.
“It is mentally destroying and is absolutely heart-breaking.
“Women are just sitting getting sicker and sicker and have no idea when they will get surgeries.
“Some women will now probably end up with a stoma bag.
“If they were seen quicker, there just wouldn’t be any need.
“Caithness General used to do two gynaecology surgery days a week. I truly believe we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now if we still had that.”
‘Nobody in the central belt would travel 104 miles for healthcare, so why should we?’
As part of their plea, campaigners have highlighted that the journey from the Caithness General in Wick to Inverness’s Raigmore Hospital is roughly equivalent of commuting from Edinburgh to Newcastle to access basic healthcare.
They have argued that people in Edinburgh would find this unacceptable. Yet it is seen as the norm for far north residents.
Rebecca Wymer set up the petition that has amassed more than 1,800 signatures.
The petition’s message is simple: “Complete an emergency in-depth review of women’s health services in Caithness and Sutherland.”
‘This is not a petition against the NHS’
She said: “One thing I have been stressing to everyone is this is not a petition against the NHS. It is a petition against the funding given to the NHS.
“The staff are brilliant and want to do their job. They just haven’t been given the support by the government to do it properly.
“Everyone is used to travelling for specific treatments like specialist cancer treatment in Glasgow or Edinburgh. But when it is routine appointments, it just wouldn’t be acceptable in the city to go all the way down to Newcastle.
“We have such a good hospital in the Caithness General with good theatres, amazing doctors and nurses.
“If they had adequate funding and if everything wasn’t centralised, we could run a successful gynaecology department, routine operations and scans.
“It is not that the equipment doesn’t exist or the building doesn’t exist.”
Miss Wymer just this week had to endure an extra night’s stay in Inverness following a routine appointment – at her own cost – after the stress of the journey flared up her endometriosis.
She was also unable to access toilet facilities on the journey from John O’Groats until Tain as loos were locked in Helmsdale and Golspie.
Campaigners continue to call for the Orkney model to be replicated, which has shown how services can be run successfully in a rural setting.
‘We need action now’
Ms Wymer added: “The point is that it has worked for Orkney, so there is no reason that it shouldn’t work for us.
“We need to decentralise things and take Caithness and Sutherland patients in closer to home.
“We are told time and time again that there isn’t the demand for gynaecology and maternity in Caithness. That is absolute nonsense.
“There are so many women who are suffering or have not been diagnosed yet because of delays.
“We need action now.”
Scottish Government say women’s health is a ‘key priority’
The Scottish Government has said they are aware of the petition and that women’s health is a key priority.
Women’s health minister Maree Todd said she will personally reply to the public petitions committee on the concerns raised.
Mrs Todd added: “Women’s health is key priority for this government which is why we published an ambitious plan in August 2021 to implement wider change to ensure all our health and social care services meet the needs of all women, everywhere.
“As part of this we are working to address inequalities in all aspects of health that women are facing.
“In addition, the Scottish Government welcomes the Best Start North review, commissioned by NHS Grampian, Highland and the Island boards, to examine maternity and neonatal services in the north of Scotland and, in consultation with local people, to develop the best possible sustainable model for the future.”