Crystal clutches her teddy bear close as she treads timidly in the shadow of her mother, Emma Bock, through the Royal Children's Hospital. She focuses her gaze on her feet, the overbearing white-walled interior too bright to look at. A cacophony of garbled intercom announcements, squeaking wheelchairs and drowned out TV noise envelops Crystal. Pain throbs through her back.
Clutched in Emma Bock's hands are a couple of sheets of paper, stapled at the corner. On the paper - Crystal's diagnosis of a rapidly developing idiopathic scoliosis.
One year later, and 10 year-old Crystal’s spine has curved a shocking 70 degrees since diagnosis in September 2022. After countless consultations with surgeons, it’s been determined Crystal will need spinal fusion surgery to avoid permanent damage to her spine. Yet, if Crystal and her mother are to go through the public healthcare system, the waiting times for the surgery are up to two years.
“I just couldn’t believe that. It blew me away,” Bock says, visibly dumbfounded.
Herein lies the problem - Bock, a single mother and a disability support pensioner, has to raise an estimated $80,000 to get surgery for Crystal, if they were to go to a private hospital. In an effort to raise the funds, her brother in law Justin-Sheargold has started a GoFundMe. At $16,000 raised, she’s nearly a quarter of the way there.
“The GoFundMe was just unreal, but honestly, it’s hard. It’s pretty much all on me,” Bock says.
“But I pull myself back from the GoFundMe because I don't want to become obsessed with it.”
Long elective surgery wait times aren’t specific to just Crystal and others with scoliosis, with 78,909 Victorians currently on public wait lists, according to a performance report by the Victorian Health Agency for Health Information. Although hospitalisations from COVID-19 are lower than they were in 2020-2021, Victorian public hospitals are still feeling the effects. After years of battling lockdowns, hospitals have been stretched thin and elective surgery waiting times are at an all time high.
While the Victorian Government’s $1.5 billion promise to boost elective surgery rates is welcomed by hospitals, workforce shortages remain the biggest concern for hospitals. Victorian Healthcare Association (VHA) CEO Leigh Clarke says elective surgery waitlists aren’t going to get shorter anytime soon if these shortages aren’t addressed.
Clarke says the VHA welcomes Victorian and Commonwealth Government initiatives to recruit more health professionals, but she’s concerned it’s going to take a long time to fill in the gaps.
“Honestly, it’s hard to say how long it will take for elective surgery waiting times to return to pre-pandemic averages,” says Clarke.
As time passes and the backlog of patients waiting for surgery grows, Bock is left in limbo.
“If her scoliosis has progressed this much in six months, [and] you’re telling me [she’ll get surgery in] one to two years,” Bock sighs. “At a certain point, it becomes so bad that they can’t do anything to fix it.”
Many Australians waiting on public surgery waitlists are dealing with co-morbidities and other underlying conditions. Crystal has been diagnosed with ADHD, sensory processing disorder and anxiety, while Bock lives with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Trips to the hospital are a nightmare for Crystal as she struggles to process the sensory bombardment of the clinical environment. Bock says Crystal nearly didn’t get a crucial MRI scan because it was too much for her to handle.
I’m sitting in on a counselling session with Crystal at the Migdala House, a private psychology practice in Warragul. In the room with us is Crystal’s counsellor, Anna Dolan, who’s entertaining Crystal with a colourful array of toy dinosaurs sprawled across the dark blue carpet. Crystal speaks with alacrity to the dinosaurs, her play animated with emotion.
We play a little game where I ask Crystal a question, then throw a toy dinosaur to her.
I ask: “Are there activities you used to love that you can’t do anymore because of your back?” before gently tossing the dinosaur to her.
She goes for the catch, but the dinosaur slips through her fingers and falls to the floor.
“I used to win the 100 metre sprint every time, but I don’t go to it anymore,” she replies absent mindedly, the vibrancy in her voice fading.
Bock says Crystal struggles to talk about her scoliosis. She shuts off, goes quiet, or changes the subject. Anything to avoid confronting the fact she may end up in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Despite her scoliosis, ADHD and anxiety, Crystal loves going to school and socialising with her friends. Wearing a wide, toothy grin, she talks at length about her vibrant social life. Although her friends don’t know about scoliosis, Crystal still finds comfort in their company. They make her laugh. Every recess is cherished dearly, as Crystal leaves school at one o’clock because of the pain.
“She doesn’t want to go [to school] because she’s in so much pain, but she wants to see her friends, she’s very conflicted,” says Bock.
Counsellor Dolan has been seeing Crystal for almost a year now. She’s watched Crystal’s situation unfold from the very beginning, witnessing the emotional and physical toll scoliosis has on Crystal firsthand. Dolan says it’s hard to not feel Bock and Crystal’s frustration.
“At what point does quality of life count on these waiting lists?” Bock says, exchanging a look of indignance with Dolan.
Other medical specialists have expressed their concerns surrounding the state of public hospitals in Victoria. In an interview with the ABC, Westmead Institute for Medical Research Professor Graeme Stewart said the current waiting times are “unconscionable”. Echoing Professor Stewart’s concerns is Australian Medical Association Professor Steve Robson. Speaking with The Australian, he said the waiting list are “horror” figures.
With a record number of people waiting for crucial surgery, Clarke lists the ways hospitals are trying to reduce waiting times.
“We’ve got some hospitals doing surgery on weekends, some have private hospitals assisting them, some are trying to offer alternative, non-surgical treatment,” she says.
And these initiatives are seeing progress - during the January to March period this year, 46,548 elective surgical procedures were performed, up 66 per cent from the same time last year.
But Bock feels the hospitals have “left [her] in the lurch” with no information on the best ways to help Crystal deal with her scoliosis. The mismanagement from the hospitals has left Bock swimming in a swamp of administration issues, dealing with missed appointments and fighting for crucial medical documents to be sent when they were promised to be.
“No support, no follow up. It’s been shocking, honestly.”
Once Crystal, Dolan and I are finished with her counselling session, we head back into the reception room to see Bock to have a quick chat. Keeping herself occupied, Crystal begins drawing on a whiteboard nearby, her hand whizzing about the whiteboard with speed and precision. The final product depicts Crystal and Bock standing beneath a tall tree that shelters over them. In the background, a row of buildings sit on the horizon line, depicting the city of Melbourne. Crystal tells me the city is big and scary, like the hospital.
There was something striking about Crystal’s drawing. It harboured an essence of kinship and fortitude. The two figures stand side-by-side, hand-in-hand, protected by the shelter of the giant tree. In the distance, the sprawling city, grey and urban. I look back at Crystal, standing by Bock’s side, standing as tall as her scoliosis will let her. Again she holds her teddy bear tight against her chest.
“If I could get my back fixed now, I don’t care about being scared of the hospital,” Crystal says.
“I will do anything to make it better.”