A Life Of Torture

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The Sunday Times, originally uploaded by rsdscrpsnews.

A life of torture

Insurance companies are spending some of their record profits on selling the image that they care. But TV ads like the one of a claims manager interrupting her wedding to take a phone call are an affront to scores of people like Ruth Clarke.

RUTH Clarke pleaded with her doctor. She wanted to walk out the door, with the wires attached to her spine still trailing from her back.

After four and a half years living with unremitting pain – at times, unbearable – she had found a treatment that worked. Only to have it snatched away.

There had been little to lift Ruth’s spirits since the fateful day in November 1999, when part of a stage at the Perth Entertainment Centre collapsed on her. But she hit all-time rock-bottom late last year.

In a cruel tease, the insurer which had paid for the week-long trial of a spinal cord stimulator sending pulses to her damaged left foot, said it wouldn’t pay for the device to be implanted under her skin.

Ruth was given the devastating news by her pain specialist, who through gritted teeth, removed the temporary device, worth $4500, and threw it in the bin. The young woman panicked.

“I was back at square one again with no real pain relief,” she said. “I said to the doctor, `What if I just leave your rooms and you just say I ran off or that I refused to let you pull the wires out?’ But he said he couldn’t because there was a risk of infection. He was very upset when he pulled the wires out.

“It felt like the bottom of my world had fallen out. I had never expected the trial to work as well as it did. And then it had never crossed my mind that the insurance company wouldn’t pay for the operation.”

Ruth, 31, is more than just a victim of an accident that wasn’t her fault. She’s also an innocent victim of WA’s adversarial workers’ compensation system, in which insurers get away with treating severely injured people like criminals.

Like many, she thought she was alone in her experiences until she read an expose last year by The Sunday Times into insurer dirty tricks. Now she is fighting back.

But her ordeal, which has included harassment by private investigators, has exacted a mental toll. She has considered ending her life and a suicide watch by her parents, Frank and Susan, at their Tapping home – checking on her at regular intervals at night – has rebounded on their own health. Susan is on medication for stress.

Add to that the distress of seeing their daughter’s spirit crushed.

Frank has written to Seven Network boss Kerry Stokes, asking him to intervene in the case. Ruth had worked as part of the stage crew for several shows at the Perth Entertainment Centre. But after the accident, in the lead-up to the Happy Days production in 1999, she claims the network, which owns the centre, didn’t want to know her.

She was 25 at the time of the stage collapse and felt she had an exciting future in the entertainment industry. She dreamed of a career as a set or lighting designer.

Elton John had showered Ruth with flowers after one show and she had been invited to join magician David Copperfield’s Australian tour. She declined because she was happy where she was.

In the accident, Ruth and other crew were asked by a supervisor to help move the guitar-shaped stage by sitting underneath and kicking a metal frame that supported heavy panels. One panel, weighing 120-150kg, fell on Ruth.

Months later, WorkSafe accused the Perth Entertainment Centre of failing to notify it of the accident and failing to investigate it. “There are so few (safety) systems in place that it is reasonable to conclude that the general duty of care provisions are not being met,” another notice cited.

Ruth returned to the centre soon after the accident and did unpaid work to “keep her face in there”. She was frightened that she wouldn’t have a job to go back to when her foot improved.

But after WorkSafe slapped several notices on the centre for safety breaches, suspicion as to who complained to the authorities wrongly fell on her. Some colleagues became openly hostile, calling her Quasimodo because of her post-injury gait. One manager advised her to go on the dole and some went as far as blaming her for the centre’s closure in 2002.

Throughout, her foot injury showed no sign of improvement. “I would be up all night just holding my foot really tight because of the pain,” she said. “I felt total frustration and anger. I know that I have a high pain threshold, but there have been times when I just wished that I could chop it off.”

An orthopedic surgeon diagnosed Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a neurological syndrome characterised by disabling pain. Her foot is particularly sensitive to light touch and the cold.

Specialist Tom Berrigan tried radio frequency treatment and other injections and medications, but they provided no real relief.

Ruth said he was reluctant to opt for a surgical implant because of her young age. But it was one of the few things left to try.

The entertainment centre was insured by HIH. But after its collapse in 2001, another insurance company, which acquired HIH policy renewals, took on the management of Ruth’s claim.

It stopped meeting the cost of her medication from January 2004. She had reached the limit of medical expenses that the insurer was required to meet under the law.

She claims she wasn’t notified and was shocked when she went to her chemist to collect her medication. “The pharmacist said, `Sorry, but we’ve been told that your medications aren’t being paid for any more’.”

Ruth was entitled to apply for an extension of medical funds to meet the cost of the implant, recommended by one of the insurer’s doctors, as well as her own.

The operation, which included putting a battery pack into her stomach to be connected to the spinal-cord stimulator, was costed at $28,000.

Ruth’s mother, Susan, put off a trip to see her terminally ill mother in Northern Ireland, from where the family emigrated in 1982, because she was told her daughter would need help around the home during the week-long trial with the stimulator.

The trial was a success, but then came the bombshell that the insurer did not want to pay for the operation. The same night her grandmother died.

Frank said his daughter would have been treated with less cruelty if she was an animal. Ruth’s GP, Jeff Veling, was also appalled.

“To put her back into agony was absolutely disgusting,” he said.

A month later, after a meeting on the issue at WorkCover, the insurer agreed to pay for the surgery, minus the cost of the trial. The shortfall still hasn’t been paid for.

Ruth said the stimulator was on its highest intensity setting and would need replacing in four years. But its success meant she could wear a shoe on her left foot for the first time since the accident.

“It’s nice now to be able to catch a glimpse of myself in a shop window and not feel gutted because I am walking with such a bad limp,” she said. “The implant stimulates the nerves and it feels like pins and needles. I still have some pain that comes through on cold days, but it’s no longer that feeling of `I can’t stand this any more’.”

Ruth was so afraid of the operation being delayed that she hid a 10mm hole in the back of her right knee from a white-tip spider bite that became infected.

“I was too scared to tell anyone because I didn’t want to be told that I couldn’t have the operation done,” she said.

Four years of not being able to walk properly has caused back, neck, and hip problems, but she cannot afford physiotherapy.

She is reliant on the charity of her doctors and specialists, who have waived their fees for the past 18 months.

“It’s embarrassing to go to the doctor and say you cannot afford to pay them,” she said.

Her family dentist did reconstructive work at no cost after medication eroded the enamel on her teeth.

Frank has offered to sell the family home to pay ongoing medical bills. It might not come to that if Ruth is successful in court. She has legal action afoot against the Seven Network and the show’s producer, Dainty Consolidated Entertainment.

She claims bosses knew there were faults with the stage before it fell.

Ruth’s lawyer, Sukhwant Singh, alleged that a co-worker overheard a supervisor say later that he knew two panels did not have supporting lugs attached.

Ruth received her first apology over the accident this week.

Within days of the implant surgery, one of the defendants seized on its success in a bid to strike out her legal action. Under WA’s workers’ compensation laws, injured people need to demonstrate a permanent bodily disability of not less than 30 per cent to be allowed to sue negligent employers.

“They said my percentage should be lowered because I was getting relief from the stimulator,” said Ruth, who fought the move in court and won.

Dr Veling said he was annoyed by the whole workers’ compensation merry-go-round. Patients are sent from one insurance doctor to another and the process can drag on for years – six years so far in Ruth’s case.

“I have asked for the insurer to meet with me and discuss the case,” the GP said. “I have also sent them reports from time to time. But I have had absolutely no feedback.”

Last year, this newspaper exposed the worst practices of hired-gun insurance doctors, who write biased reports in exchange for huge fees.

Ruth was sent to one such doctor, whose report claimed there was nothing wrong with her.

“He was abrupt, patronising, condescending and bullying,” Ruth said. “He wasn’t interested in seeing my X-rays. I was in tears when I left. He has written reports which are the complete opposite of all of my other medical reports.”

The doctor, an orthopedic surgeon, wrote that her problems were psychological only.

“To say that was beyond his level of expertise,” Dr Veling said. “Ruth is a very genuine person who was in a lot of pain. To be honest with you, I thought she was going to commit suicide (before the implant).”

Dr Veling said he looked forward to the day he could face these doctors in court.

Ruth’s pain specialist, Dr Berrigan, was also scathing.

“There are problems with certain practitioners who work exclusively for insurance companies and who can be relied upon to produce reports which favour insurance companies at the expense of patients,” he said.

“Some of these doctors fly in from interstate just to give these reports and some are providing reports on areas (of medicine) that are not their specialty. And the system accepts that.”

Ruth was sent to one insurance doctor for a 9am appointment in Fremantle. The doctor was based in Perth, closer to her northern suburbs home, but she had to travel the extra distance in rush-hour. While not a major imposition, she felt it was symptomatic of an overall game plan to make her life more awkward and encourage her to give up her claim.

Her father is also damning of the merry-go-round.

“Ruth has had to undergo numerous reviews by insurance companies, their doctors and their lawyers,” he said. “In the reviews, she has been made to feel bullied, degraded, reduced to tears and made to feel more like a criminal than a victim.”

Frank has confronted private investigators engaged by the insurer to conduct surveillance on his daughter. He has been lied to, sworn at and his back garden has been trampled.

“It’s like being stalked,” Ruth said. “It’s another thing to make me feel horrible, like I have done something wrong.”

Her lawyer, Mr Singh, said the workers’ compensation system was set up to help people like Ruth, but the reality was that it failed them.

“She’s had one hell of a fight in the system. If someone so obviously genuine can have such a rough ride . . . God help everyone else,” he said.

Ruth insists she tries to be positive.

“I try to go to the gym as often as possible. I try to go for walks. I know that I am doing the best for myself physically,” she said.

She has a talent for art and won a couple of prizes last year.

“The feeling from that is brilliant when you have been made to feel worthless for so long,” she said.

But it’s still a far cry from where she was six years ago.

“I loved my job and the people that I worked with. I went from being very active and very sporty to nothing after the accident,” she said.

She used to have her own unit and has lost her independence.

“I don’t know what my future is,” she said. “I know that I have large medical bills hanging over me and my savings are gone. I feel like I have lost everything.

“I can’t even imagine dating now. I can’t imagine getting married now. My temper is a lot worse. My mum and dad have copped it a few times.

“The insurers are obviously thinking more about the people who have shares in their companies and in getting me to give up, to make me quit.”

A spokesman for the insurer said: “I am satisfied that the claim has been managed professionally taking all the circumstances into account . . . I think we have managed the claim as sensitively as we can and within the regulatory framework in which we operate.”

He said many of Ruth’s frustrations were better directed at the adversarial nature of the workers’ compensation system than the insurer’s conduct.

For the original story online, please click here: http://www.sundaytimes.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,7034,16102111%255E2761,00.html


One response to “A Life Of Torture

  1. Thank you for putting my story on your web-site. I can’t read it all again, and am doing the best I can with my life – but I do want to let other people know that the Implanted Neural Stimulator is masking the pain enough for me to feel like I have some control over my life. Every day I’m confronted with those little things I can’t do any more – all those movements I NEVER seem to remember I can’t do until I start to do them. But frustration, anger, hopelessness are not my predominate feelings any more – I now have enough relief to continually push the boundaries. Work is hard but rewarding. Life is challenging but I’m not losing. And sky-diving is something I’d recommend to anyone!!. Hang in there. Ruth xo

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