'I lost it': Cancer patient could miss treatment due to Covid test delays

·8-min read

Among the thousands of people lining up to get tested for Covid-19 in NSW are people who need to be cleared as negative to get life-saving treatment.

Martine Dines is one of them.

Earlier this year, Ms Dines, who is originally from Ireland but has lived in Australia since 2014, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In order to get treatment she needs to have a negative PCR test before her appointment and in recent weeks, trying to get a test has been a nightmare – not to mention the increasingly long wait for results.

On Boxing Day Ms Dines hoped to get a Covid test ahead of her Wednesday appointment. Her nurses advised her that she should opt for a drive-thru clinic, so she isn't standing beside potentially infectious people for hours on end.

After finally finding a clinic on the 26th that was open, the wait time in the line to get a test was about five hours, so Ms Dines decided to try again on Monday.

Martine Dines in front of the Sydney Opera House and, right, with her head shaved. Source: Instagram/@missdines
Martine Dines struggled to get a Covid test she needed to get to fulfil her requirements to get cancer treatment. Source: Instagram/@missdines

She arrived at the testing site two hours before it opened, with hundreds of cars in front of hers.

On Tuesday, Ms Dines told Yahoo News Australia she was in tears while waiting in her car. Luckily a nurse accepted her as a walk-in, despite the testing site usually not allowing such.

"She [the nurse] still couldn't guarantee that I would have my results, so then I had to go to another testing clinic and try to get another test at a hospital because apparently they're a lot quicker," Ms Dines said.

At the time of the interview at mid-morning on Tuesday, Ms Dines was still waiting for her results.

She said the first person at the testing centre on Monday morning had been there since 3am, but the site didn't open until 8am.

Next week, Ms Dines will have to line up for another Covid test and she said the thought of that is "already daunting" and is stressing her out.

"I'm trying just to forget about it and focus on getting my results back this week and see if the treatment happens this week or not," she said.

Martina Dines would have to miss out on chemotherapy if she does not get tested, or receives a positive result. Source: Instagram/@missdines
Martina Dines would have to miss out on chemotherapy if she does not get tested, or receives a positive result. Source: Instagram/@missdines

More needs to be done to protect vulnerable people who need tests

Ms Dines said after she shared her experience of trying to get a test to Instagram on Monday, people reached out to her to say they had no idea she would be waiting to get a Covid test in the same queue as them.

She questioned what other vulnerable people were meant to do amid the pandemic surge — like elderly people who can't drive or walk, but need a negative test for treatment, or pregnant women.

On Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed some pregnant women have to line up every three days to get a Covid test, so when they arrive at a private hospital in labour, they have a negative Covid test to show.

Ms Dines said a friend of hers is heavily pregnant and is stressed about getting a test for her and her partner, so he can be there when she gives birth.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet confirmed NSW Health is working with hospitals to adjust PCR testing requirements for women preparing to give birth.

"No one who is pregnant should be sitting in long queues," Mr Perrottet said

Martine Dines with her fiancé Sean. Source: GoFundMe
Martine Dines was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year and has undergone treatment and surgeries amid the pandemic. Source: GoFundMe

Demand for testing in NSW has dramatically increased, amid the surge of cases, people presenting Covid symptoms and people travelling interstate and requiring a test.

Ms Dines said testing should not be discouraged, people need to know if they have Covid and whether they should isolate to prevent further spread in the community.

However, she does believe there needs to be a better way to assist people like her, who need a test for any medical reason.

"I think it's very unfair to ask anyone who is ill, going through treatment, needs medical attention or even pregnant women, it's very unfair to ask them to stand and the same queue as someone else who is going on holiday or has got symptoms," she said.

Throughout the pandemic there has been an emphasis on protecting vulnerable people, who are likely to have a more severe illness if they get Covid.

Not only will Ms Dines' be refused treatment if she can't produce a negative Covid treatment, but she is also immunocompromised.

She only has three more chemotherapy sessions to go and in February she will start six weeks of radiation and again, she will be required to get tested three times a week, a prospect which is already stressing her out.

Martine Dines with her fiancé Sean, and right in hospital. Source: Instagram/@missdines
Martine Dines worries for other people who are getting medical treatment struggling to fulfil testing requirements. Source: Instagram/@missdines

"If average queues are around two to three hours, I don't know how I meant to do that three times a week.

"I'm talking nine hours a week, standing in queues trying to get a Covid test and then stress about getting a result, that's another thing that's that I'm worried about looking ahead."

Patients told no treatments unless 'Covid negative'

Battling cancer while living abroad has been difficult enough for Ms Dines, fortunately, her parents were granted an exemption and have been able to be with her.

However, going through treatment amid a pandemic has been isolating for Ms Dines, who hasn't been able to see her friends as much as she would like, due to the risk of catching Covid-19.

"So it's really limiting yourself, limited in your circle that you have interactions with and trying to say no to going out and no to even just go to the shops for Christmas," she said.

Martine Dines was able to get an exemption for her parents to come to Australia from Ireland to support her through treatment. Source: Instagram/@missdines
Martine Dines was able to get an exemption for her parents to come to Australia from Ireland to support her through treatment. Source: Instagram/@missdines

Ms Dines was able to enjoy a wholesome Christmas with her parents and fiancé Sean, but will likely forgo any New Years' celebrations due to the mounting Covid cases.

"I don't think we're going to be out of the woods anytime soon," she said. 

"I think that January is going to be quite difficult when we think of the numbers and what they're like now in terms of Covid cases."

Beyond vulnerable people in the state, Ms Dines also worries for the healthcare workers in NSW who also need to get tested and all those working on the frontline.

"My heart does go out for the nurses here that are doing the tests and are in the hospital because they are under immense pressure," she said,

While in tears, waiting to get tested on Monday, Ms Dines was on the phone to oncology and emergency departments to try and explain what was happening.

"I could tell they were under pressure, they were sympathising with me," she said. 

"But they were basically telling me what they've been told — that I can't get treatments unless I have a negative Covid test. So that's putting them under pressure as well.

"Even the nurses at the testing clinic — they're completely rundown, they're exhausted. It's not their fault."

Ms Dines believes the government hasn't set up the system to support frontline workers and hopes these issues aren't prevalent next year.

"I want to try and get married and try and get life back on track and you know, third time lucky hopefully the next wedding we plan won't be cancelled," she laughed.

On Monday, Dr Chris Moy from the Australian Medical Association told Yahoo News Australia the game had changed, "probably for worse unfortunately". 

"Omicron has taken off, particularly in NSW where the lack of controls has really allowed it to go completely out of control," he said.

"It’s like a health emergency-type situation where supply doesn’t meet demand."

In a statement to Yahoo News Australia, NSW Health said chemotherapy, radiotherapy and renal dialysis treatments in NSW Health settings, are not required to have a PCR test prior to appointments.

"Local Health Districts are reviewing their current practices to ensure these immunocompromised patients are not burdened with the stress, or risk, of waiting in queues ahead of their regular visits for treatment," a NSW Health spokesperson said.

"While most hospitals have been offering a screening test on site at the time of appointments, NSW Health has recommended that all services move to have rapid antigen tests performed on arrival at clinics and outpatient settings.

"If patients wish, they may arrange to have their own rapid antigen tests done at home on the day of the appointment for added convenience, with results shared with clinic staff.

"Testing is recommended to ensure the safety of patients and staff, particularly with the recent rise in COVID-19 case numbers in the community."

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