MADRID – In March last year, when the coronavirus broke out across Spain, Lídia Bayona Gómez began to suffer from vomiting and coughing.
As a nursing home worker, she treated herself as a potential Covid-19 case, isolated herself and had herself tested. The results were negative twice. When her weight dropped and her urine turned red, she made repeated attempts to see a doctor, and in late April she told her to stay home and prescribed medication for gastroenteritis and a urinary tract infection.
But the pain got worse and worse, and in late June her sister took her to an emergency room. In mid-July, she underwent a 12-hour operation to remove two cancerous tumors, one from an ovary and one from the biliary tract. She died in hospital nine days later at the age of 53.
It wasn’t an isolated tragedy.
Hospitals and other health centers have been forced to devote most of their resources to Covid-19 patients, and doctors are warning that a growing number of cases of cancer and other serious diseases go undetected, which could cost many more lives. This toll is gradually being reflected in legal proceedings.
The details of Ms. Bayona Gómez’s care are part of a lawsuit filed by her sister Fátima Bayona, who wants the Spanish public prosecutor’s office to accuse the local health authorities in the northern city of Burgos of gross negligence. Last month, prosecutors said they were investigating the death.
Only in Burgos have several other lawsuits been filed, including one by a woman who learned she had terminal cancer after trying to get access to a hospital for testing for seven months.
Carmen Flores, the president of an association that helps patients or their loved ones take legal action, said her association has filed more than 50 lawsuits since September, when Spain and other countries were hit by a second wave of Covid-19. She said her workload was growing exponentially due to medical errors and oversights resulting from doctors focusing on Covid-19 at the expense of other diseases.
Unlike some other countries, the Spanish government does not report how many medical claims are filed each year. But Ms. Flores said that after monitoring court records across the country, the number appears to have increased by at least 30 percent this year.
In some lawsuits, doctors are accused of refusing to see patients in person. However, others claim that doctors rushed to wrong conclusions or did not want to touch patients as part of their exams because of the risk of contracting Covid-19.
For the most part, however, doctors say they are just overworked.
Doctors in many countries have warned that the pandemic may have exacerbated other health problems, either by diverting resources or because people were afraid to seek help with other conditions, especially in the early stages.
The British Medical Association, the UK’s premier medical association, said hospitals there received more than 250,000 less-than-normal cancer referrals in April, May and June. A survey of US cancer patients published in April found that nearly one in four reports delays in care due to the pandemic.
However, Spanish medical professionals say the crisis there has exposed particular weaknesses in the country’s health system.
“In Spain we have long prided ourselves on being the best in the world for specialties like transplants, but this pandemic is also making us realize just how neglected we have been in our basic health care,” said César Carballo, a doctor at Ramón Hospital’s emergency department y Cajal in Madrid.
“We’ve had thousands of our professionals who have gone overseas and we really need to make it more attractive for them to work here again.”
The staff shortage was particularly worrying in places like Madrid. The head of the capital region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, has built a new hospital. But she is struggling to find health professionals who work at a time when health unions are vigorously expressing their dissatisfaction.
Last month, Spanish doctors staged a nationwide strike to protest their working conditions and warn authorities not to hire additional doctors without adequate qualifications.
“It will take us a lot of time, money and effort to rebuild the foundations of our health system,” said Dr. Carballo. “You can’t find new doctors in just a few months.”
Ms. Flores, from the association that helps patients take legal action, echoed these concerns.
“This virus, at least hopefully, makes us understand that primary health care cannot function properly if staff and investments have been steadily cut,” she said.
In another case of undetected cancer, Lydia Sainz-Maza Zorrilla, a radio journalist, recorded her sister Sonia’s final months. She was 48 years old when she died of colon cancer in August after not seeing a personal doctor for three months. Instead, she received bad advice over the phone from her local health center.
“Our public administration has used Covid as the perfect excuse to keep doctors on the phone and completely rule out the possibility of them being able to properly diagnose patients,” said Ms. Sainz-Maza Zorrilla.
“If her doctor had actually seen and touched her, I would be absolutely certain that my sister would still be alive today because colon cancer is terrible, but you don’t have to die from it like her,” she added.
Regional Health Minister Verónica Casado said at a press conference last month that she was sorry “if something was not done well” regarding the treatment of Ms. Sainz-Maza Zorrilla. On October 6, prosecutors opened an investigation into her death from colon cancer.
While doctors and nurses face the second wave of Covid-19 with better protective gear than they did in the spring, their morale appears to be lower.
“I just can’t give a patient proper attention when I recently saw 100 people in a single day,” said Patricia Estevan, a doctor at a public health center in Madrid.
Manuel Franco, Professor and Researcher in Epidemiology at the University of Alcalá de Henares and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, said, “We have health workers who are now not only exhausted but also angry because they are seeing some improvement in The medicine have seen logs since last spring, but not hiring more people that was promised. “
However, some of the recent lawsuits also highlight the risk to patients being treated in a hospital overburdened by the influx of Covid-19 patients.
Jesús Pinos is suing a hospital in the northern city of Santander after the death of his grandmother María Delia Laguatasig Iza, who mistakenly had to wait for her appendicitis surgery in a corridor with Covid-19 patients.
Although she tested negative for the coronavirus before her surgery, she was diagnosed with Covid-19 a week later and eventually died of it.
The hospital did not respond to a request for comment. Prosecutors in Santander opened their own investigation on October 26th.
“She was the victim of some catastrophic medical errors that you would never expect in a modern and functioning health system,” said Pinos. “What is clear is that she came to the hospital without Covid, was then sent home coughing and finally died of this virus.”