Tragic stories out of the crumbling healthcare system appear in the independent media on a daily basis, but this one stands out for its cruelty. Cancer patients are made to wait in line between 5-11 AM every morning at the National Oncology Center just to find out WHETHER they can get chemotherapy that day.
Kékgolyó street is a leafy street on the Buda side, where the National Oncology Center stands in a pleasant neighborhood. The only thing that stands out for a passer-by is the proliferation of alternative non-medicine businesses all throughout the street. Among the many quackery outlets I could even spot a particularly infamous ripoff product that has never been proven to do anything to cancer – but costs the last savings of its victims. The media used to be full of the scandal, but the business withstood logic and legal action and still offers its pills to the desperate cancer patients who walk out of the country’s biggest cancer hospital across the street.
It is difficult to understand why otherwise sane (and poor) people pay monstrous sums for unproven quackery right after being treated in the country’s top cancer hospital, but once you see with your own eyes what awaits patients in the hospital across the street, you will understand.
Watch the video by index.hu here. (Image from the video.)
24.hu followed a cancer patient and his family waiting to get into chemotherapy a few days ago and documented the cruel and shocking reality of treatment in the country’s top cancer hospital.
Patients turn up to wait in line as early as 5 in the morning to be the first to get a number. The stakes are high.
There are no appointments and there isn’t enough places for chemotherapy, so those who arrive late will not get chemo that day.
The doors to the waiting room open only at 7 AM to allow the (also desperate and underpaid) hospital workers to clean the facilities before treatments start.
I can confirm from personal experience from other Budapest hospitals that it is often the nurses and assistants who are forced to clean the premises themselves because of the desperate shortage of workers who are willing to do the back-breaking but high-responsibility job of cleaning hospitals for net salaries that rarely reach 400 euros a month. Knowing how bad it has been for these workers for years, it is probably not surprising that a morose war is ongoing between desperate patients and desperate hospital staff, whose minds are no doubt preoccupied with with how they can save a few cents on public transport or how they can make dinner that night as cheaply as possible without starving their family. If they make it home, that is, because unpaid overtime can be called any time – and it usually is due to the above-mentioned lack of workers.
It is also unsurprising that cleaners were trying to get into the business of selling numbers themselves. Because there is an entire cottage industry built on desperate patients waiting for chemo. First, they wait outside. The doors may open at 7AM, but it would be truly subhuman to just storm the number machine all at once. Patients themselves have started organizing the chaos and they are now handing out numbers in the order of arrival. These are the “unofficial” numbers. Whoever gets there first gets to take the first “official” number when the waiting room opens at 7AM.
But the waiting is not over. Cancer patients have to wait until 11AM to find out whether their number gets chemo that day. (A single treatment takes hours so if it doesn’t start by 11, it won’t happen that day.)
Entire families work out systems to wait in line on behalf of a sick loved one and try to get them in – because cancer victims are not always perky and fit enough to go through the ordeal – and then the chemo – all by themselves. Who would have thought?
Others are not so lucky. Some travel from other parts of the country to the National Oncology Center for this, they may have to wake up at 3AM or find accommodation in the capital the night before.
If they don’t get there early enough, no chemo.
After the report and the video came out, the usual blame game started. The hospital blames patients for the commotion – but they don’t even consider introducing appointments. Probably because there aren’t as many appointments as there are patients and they would have to admit that there’s a shortage of treatment. Official waiting lines for chemo would suddenly exist and they would be months-long. Now that it is unofficial, now that no one is keeping track, they can keep the treatment shortage secret. The statistics are glowing, that is what matters.
Hospital statistics resemble the communist party’s infamous and absurd “success reports” from 40 years ago, when any irrational nonsense could make it into the official statistics – only to be used as bragging point and gaslighting tool by the party leader.
Today’s healthcare minister, for instance, counts dead doctors as active, often in multiple hospitals. Despite the shutdown of entire hospital departments due to the emigration of their staff, despite the absence of medical care in entire towns during summer holidays, despite the frequent breakdown of emergency care in Budapest where the shortage of doctors is so severe that hospitals regularly refuse to admit patients with multiple trauma (typically after an accident) because they can’t attend to them sufficiently. The minister still reports that everything is fine.
This particular hospital, the National Oncology Center has also been founded by the current minister. He is a former oncologist, no less, who powerfully denies that anything might be wrong. He also believes that the ten commandments would prevent most kinds of cancer.
God save us all, I guess, because these men won’t.
On the day the reporters joined the queue the “official” number system didn’t work, and the hospital introduced a new layer of confusion and mad scrambling for the life-saving treatment: every patient had to go back down to the reception and register there – and then get called by their names. Regulars told reporters that’s not how it usually works – but they were not surprised. While they scrambled for the registration desk, a few favored patients of the doctor got called in first.
UPDATE – Two days after the original report, Orbán’s infamous nothing-is-beneath-us media (TV2) struck back with a video report titled “World Class Niveau at the Oncology”, where they show an empty corridor and a very satisfied patient, who fluently lists all the good things she had experienced: Everyone is polite, there are no queues, the niveau is “Western European level”, etc. The report lists whatever she left out: that the previous prime minister is at fault, that Orbán gives billions and billions … state of the art … development … refurbished … there will be more, and there is even air conditioning.
With a straight face. There is officially nothing distinguishing TV news under communism and today, when it comes to Orbán’s media. Nothing.
Fun fact: The bit about having air conditioning made it into the success report because doctors at SOTE, the biggest university hospital recently went public in an anonymous appeal to someone please install air conditioning in operation theaters because they have to operate wearing head bands and with the window open to avoid sweat, and child patients have to be cooled with wet towels to avoid overheating during surgery, etc. – Latter is also confirmed from personal experience.
UPDATE 2 – The TV2 reporter responsible for the everything-is-awesome communist-style success report of happy patients and empty corridors is the wife of the current director of the hospital (the guy who speaks the video report). I can’t make this up, but of course it is unsurprising.
The reporter’s husband was found politically correct enough by the religious-nationalist minister to take over the institute after he left. Leadership seats of state-financed institutions (such as hospitals, universities, even the academy of science) have long been stuffed with loyal comrades, and so was the ostensible private enterprise, TV2, that is nonetheless stuffed with advertising money from the government, and is owned by a trusted loyalist.
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