Helen Lewers was in her late 50s when she had her first bad reaction to a jack jumper ant bite.
These ants are very aggressive, and are said to be one of the most dangerous native ant species in Australia.
They’ve sent many people to hospital and for some people they can be deadly.
For Helen, when she was younger, and living in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, a jack jumper sting (she suffered several over time) was a painful annoyance.
Later she moved to a bush block near Ballarat.
The jack jumper ants loved the place as much as she did. And by then, after a sting left her with a profoundly swollen hand, Helen found she was allergic to them.
“They climb trees, bushes, ladders and buildings and nowhere is really safe,” she said.
“They can crawl onto me when I brush against a bush, for example. Or they might fall from a gum tree.
“When stung I use an EpiPen, call an ambulance and usually need extra adrenalin in the ambulance or on arrival at the emergency department at Ballarat Base Hospital.”
This was occurring “roughly” twice every summer.
One day, while awaiting treatment, Helen went into anaphylactic shock, an experience she described as “almost dreamy”.
An even scarier experience occurred when, following another sting, Helen was put on hold by the ambulance service.
For the first time, she felt truly vulnerable.
Victoria opens a specialist clinic
By then, the jack jumper ant, long a serious problem in Tasmania, where many people have been hospitalised, had increasingly become a Victorian problem.
In 2016, Monash Health opened a specialist clinic to deliver a jack jumper ant venom immunotherapy program that desensitises people with a jack jumper ant allergy.
Helen signed up to the waiting list.
“The treatment involves being injected with minute amounts, at first, of the ant venom. Over a period of time the doses are increased with the aim of building up my immunity,” said Helen.
“If I was able to access the treatment I would free up an ambulance roughly twice each summer, would free up space in the emergency department, and allow staff to attend other patients. It would also free up a room in the short-stay ward at my local hospital.”
A couple of years went by and Helen was finally given an appointment date, about two years ago. Then COVID-19 arrived and the appointment was postponed.
Since then, appointments have been offered and cancelled. Helen was due to begin treatment early this month.
“Three days before I was due to go, the appointment was cancelled because COVID-19 was deemed to now be the main focus at the medical centre.”
Helen believes the ant stings now pose a greater risk to her health than COVID-19.
“I’m double-vaxxed and have recently had the booster. Otherwise I’m a pretty healthy person not needing any medication,” she said.
“I understand why this treatment is not to be, for now. But I also understand that many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of patients must be affected in a similar way around the country.”
She said that COVID-19 “has got out of hand and the hospitals need to deal with that as a priority”.
A spokesperson from Monash Health confirmed it had temporarily paused appointments for new patients to its Jack Jumper Ant Immunotherapy service.
“The service continues to operate for existing patients,” they told The New Daily.
“We understand that these delays can be frustrating for our patients. We are working to ensure postponed appointments can be rebooked as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Healthcare workers under strain
Helen blames our politicians.
She feels the current situation is “due to the incompetence of the federal government who, in cahoots with the Premier of New South Wales, decided it was safe, or politically expedient, to let it rip, which is exactly what’s happened”.
That might be one woman’s gripe. But it will be interesting to see in a few months’ time how the gripes of many people waiting for long-overdue surgeries and treatments will affect the federal election result.
Melbourne-based emergency physician Dr Stephen Parnis said healthcare workers are exhausted and suffering from “moral injury” – where they feel stressed and burdened by “not being able to provide the care that they would want for patients, or that they would perceive to be the best care”.
Dr Parnis said attempting to ease pressure on the healthcare system by suspending some elective procedures – as has been done this month in the ACT, NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania – often forced patients to seek higher-risk surgeries down the track.
“A good example would be, let’s say someone on a waiting list to have their gallbladder removed because of stones,” he said, noting the word ‘elective’ was misleading as it implied all procedures were discretionary.
“That gallbladder gets infected, or a stone goes down the bile duct and causes pancreatitis. And it goes from a relatively routine thing to something that’s life threatening.”
Dr Parnis added that the elusive “peak” in hospitalisations seemed a long way off still – and that staff were just focused on getting through each day.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said, referring to suggestions from chief health officer Paul Kelly that case numbers would peak within weeks.
In the meantime, for Helen, it’s a matter of hanging tight to her EpiPen, and hoping the overstretched ambulance service turns up in time.
If you have a story about COVID-19 delaying your treatment or surgery, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional reporting by James Ried