Even the dead are being politicised to highlight state of health services

There is a now traditional game of cat and mouse that goes on between politicians and medics writes Alison O’Connor.

YOU can fail the sick and fail the dying, but the news that you are also failing the dead brings us into shameful new territory when it comes to the state of our health services.

It is such an appalling and distressing notion to think of the bodies of loved ones lying on hospital corridors with fluid seeping from decomposing corpses, and to be told of an apparent necessity to have closed coffin funerals. 

The inability to care and respect for the recently departed brings a sense of a society that has become somehow uncivilised.

Given the awful litany of stories — from endless waits on trollies, to delays in cancer surgeries, to the heart rending photos of children bent over with scoliosis — we are conditioned to believe the absolute worst of our health services. 

But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had clearly reached his own limit on the never ending tales of the horrors to be found on the corridors of Irish hospitals. This time he was putting his foot down. The only problem is it was on the back of an issue which had unsettled people in all kinds of ways.

There is a now traditional game of cat and mouse that goes on between politicians and medics — both sides being highly skilled at the art of politics. 

There are times when the medical crowd could give the Leinster House gang workshops on just how it’s done. We’ve seen it time and again whenever there is an effort by politicians to make changes and they are hit with a well-organised and well-executed campaign pushing back at the proposal. 

This usually involves the clever targeting of local government politicians, all the better if there is a Cabinet minister involved. Not only are they good at it, they frequently feel entirely justified. 

This owes to the conditions under which they are forced to operate and the consistent failure by Fine Gael to make any sort of credible effort to introduce a fair system of health care.

The pathologists at Waterford University Hospital have been forced to operate under what are clearly atrocious conditions with years of empty promises relating to conditions being improved, not least on something as basic as refrigeration facilities.

Most of us find death difficult to think about, let alone to contemplate what happens to the body in the minutes after the heart stops beating. 

But the unpalatable facts are that fluids can be a factor from the moment of death, the bowels release, as well as the bladder or indeed saliva from the mouth as the muscles relax ahead of rigor mortis setting in. 

Bodily fluids can be a significant component of death right from the start. As I understand it though last summer’s sustained heatwave made a bad situation in that hospital worse. I also understand that one example where a closed coffin was advised has been cited. 

However evidence relating to fluids leaking on to the floor of hospital corridors is lacking. 

The point here is that this was an extraordinary and distressing claim to have been made, and as such would need strong evidence to back it up — which I believe was the point the Taoiseach was attempting to make, but which he did in a ham-fisted manner.

This claim has caused a number of local families deep distress, as they speculate whether the body of their loved one was not treated with respect after they had died at the hospital. 

It is an entirely understandable reaction and the distress felt by these people is upsetting to think about. The not knowing what actually happened adds an additional torment to their grief.hospitalr

There is no doubt but that the Waterford University Hospital mortuary, like so many items on our health service to do list, was disgracefully neglected. 

The matter had gone on for so long you can only imagine the anger and frustration of those forced to work under these awful conditions, their sense of wishing to respect the dead, yet nothing being done, and a belief that only something extraordinary would bring about a change. 

There was also apparently a school of thought that the fight for funding for the cath lab at the hospital, which would keep people with cardiac issues alive, was being pushed as higher priority than a new mortuary for the dead. 

How horrible to think that this is what matters have been reduced to.

The third leg of this stool, apart from the politicians and the medics, is the HSE. 

The journalist who broke the mortuary story, Darren Skelton of the Waterford News & Star, has done excellent and dogged work to bring it out into the open. 

Indeed when breaking a story like this, the very least you need to is resilience given the competing agendas and the piecemeal and reluctant manner in which information is released. 

Yet again we are left to try and piece things together, rather than getting open disclosure. It is difficult to imagine that the Taoiseach feels any huge surge of trust in what he is told by the HSE at times like this. 

Just think back to the poor information flow surrounding the Cervical Check controversy. But then again you reap what you sow.

That apology the Taoiseach offered last weekend must have hurt to have to deliver. But the tone he had struck on this story did not just upset and anger the public, but also his party colleagues. 

Add that to the reception and coverage of the Cabinet visit to Cork last week and the protesters taking over the Fine Gael meeting that night.

ALL in all it was not a good week for him. It caused serious party jitters in the context of the upcoming local and European elections, and a general election.

As we know the IFA arranged a rowdy protest in Cork. There is a photo of the Taoiseach talking to IFA president, Joe Healy, in which Leo looks little short of menacing. 

It’s difficult not to look at it and think — come back glad-handing Enda Kenny, all is forgiven. Now it is just a moment in time, and the video footage shows it was a short conversation with a lot of roaring and protesting farmers surrounding them, but it did seem to capture the Varadkar week and how he can sometimes come across. 

He would do well to get a print of the photo pinned to the back of his office door as a reminder of how not to look when he ventures outside of Dublin.

Getting back to the Waterford mortuary, in isolation it is understandable why he might have wanted evidence of what he described as the more “macabre” aspects of this story, those very aspects that have proven so distressing to people. 

But in his position as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, and a former minister for health, he must also face the reality of being in ultimate charge of a health service where even the dead have now become politicised.

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