Choking back tears, Leisa Rutledge struggles as she details the past month with her husband Dan in intensive care in Brisbane.
- Yeppoon resident Dan Rutledge is in hospital 650km from home
- His wife Leisa and their three children are grappling with where to live
- The National Rural Health Alliance says some people cannot afford to care for their loved ones far from home
Ms Rutledge, who usually lives in Yeppoon in central Queensland, pushed for her husband to see a doctor after what seemed like a harmless sinus issue made his snoring worse.
But a scan and a follow-up phone call from a Brisbane neurosurgeon changed everything.
“[The doctor] he said it was quite big… the [brain] tumour was connected to a major blood vessel,” Ms Rutledge said.
“He said I think it’s really important that you have the surgery because if you don’t, you probably won’t be around for Christmas.”
Mr Rutledge suffered a stroke in his brain stem after the surgery in early July and has been in a coma since.
Ms Rutledge said the experience of nearly losing her high school sweetheart had been heartbreaking.
“That was a really hard day,” she said.
Ms Rutledge said she had not previously thought about what living in Yeppoon would mean for her family if someone needed care that was not available locally.
“I don’t know how people can afford to be in our situation,” she said.
Ms Rutledge said a doctor told her to think long term about her family’s future, as her husband could be in a coma for months and any rehabilitation would be intense, take considerable time, and would need to happen in Brisbane.
It’s put the mother-of-three in a difficult position.
“That kind of shocked me because I don’t want to give up our home in Yeppoon, because if Dan does get to a point where he gets home, I want him to remember what we had,” she said.
Queensland Health offers a patient subsidy scheme to help people from rural and regional areas to access healthcare more than 50 kilometers away.
While Ms Rutledge has access to the subsidy scheme, she said the money it provided for rent did not cover the cost of renting for the family in Brisbane near the hospital.
They are currently living with her sister, about a 50-minute drive from the hospital, while an online fundraiser has been set up to help pay the family’s costs.
Queensland Health said in a statement that distance, geographical implications, and isolation were important considerations when managing healthcare services in hospitals.
“We acknowledge additional costs Queenslanders living in rural and remote locations incur when accessing specialty health services,” it said.
The department added that $97.20 million was allocated to the subsidy scheme in the 2021-22 financial year.
Ms Rutledge said she was looking for an apartment, but with the tight rental market, her situation felt “really dire”.
While Mr Rutledge’s hospital does have social workers to help place families in homes, she said the only option available was a studio apartment and her family needed more space long term.
She said she was on a waiting list for a bigger, family-sized hospital unit but had been told the hospital did not see her getting off the waitlist “anytime soon”.
“It’s really difficult for a lot of rural families to be able to come down and try to find long-term accommodation,” Ms Rutledge said.
Not the only ones
National Rural Health Alliance chief executive Gabrielle O’Kane said some people missed out on caring for their loved ones in capital cities because of the high expenses associated with travel, accommodation, and missing out on paid work.
“I’ve actually had the experience myself where I had six to seven months’ worth of treatment in Sydney when I lived in Wagga Wagga with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Dr O’Kane said.
“I know how difficult it is being separated from family, and while there’s some assistance in terms of accommodation and travel assistance… when you’re away from your family for a long period of time there is emotional support and those sorts of things you don ‘t have.”
Dr O’Kane said travel schemes needed to incorporate the “vast majority of expenses” that people incurred living away from home to make it easier on patients.
The Rutledges’ three teenage children are now doing online-only lessons from their central Queensland high school, which they complete at the school onsite at their dad’s hospital.
When asked whether she would consider going back to Yeppoon and traveling back and forth to Brisbane, Ms Rutledge was resolute.
“I would never do that,” she said.
“I just miss him.”