As soon as Lisa Irwin’s Bangkok-based doctor removed her bandages, the trans woman knew things had gone very badly.
Because of a decades-long waiting list for a publicly funded sex change, Irwin, 44, decided to pay almost $30,000 for the surgery in Thailand.
There are no surgeons in New Zealand who can perform the complex surgery and the Ministry of Health says no one has expressed an interest in undergoing the specialised training.
This leaves those needing the surgery with very few options but to go overseas and hope for the best.
For Irwin, the month-long trip in 2013 was to be the turning point in her life, the final step in her transition from man to woman and an end to the intense bullying, stigma and discrimination she had suffered since she was a little boy dressing up in nighties and dresses.
What eventuated was a botched job, mutilating her genitals to the point where she can’t perform the simplest physical tasks and leaving her stranded on an invalids benefit.
There are currently 71 people waiting for male to female surgery and 19 people waiting for female to male surgery.
The cost of male to female surgeries is about $35,000-$40,000. For female to male it can be as much as $180,000.
The Ministry of Health has identified five surgeries for 2017, all of which will be conducted overseas. This is twice the normal allocated amount as the government struggles to catch up with scheduling.
Agender New Zealand president Trevor Nelley recently said the country’s slow progression on gender reassignment surgeries was causing angst in a growing community.
“I think we have a lot of frustrated people in our society because of the fact that the so-called waiting list is of a horrendous magnitude.”
The risk of things going badly in a foreign country are very real.
The Ministry said Irwin’s case was not a unique one and a small number of corrections have had to be funded in the past five years.
The Ministry funded Irwin’s return to Thailand in 2015 for revision surgery but Irwin said this was a rushed trip due to limited funds. What was wrong was not fixed.
Sharp stabbing pain hits Irwin if she performs the simplest of physical tasks and even walking for a few minutes cripples her.
But she said the pain wasn’t her focus, rather she felt too embarrassed even to show her fiancee her scars and couldn’t trust her body to let her work a full day. Her life is on hold.
Irwin turned to overseas doctors because of the long waiting lists and the discrimination and stigma she had endured from local doctors. “Doctors are old school and stuck in their ways that men should be men and women should be women. They try to shove you off and say maybe you’re just gay, you’re just trying to hide that you’re gay. They run test after test.”
But she never thought that the surgery would make things even worse than they already were. “I had no options. I let it heal and to see what happened. I was in severe pain all the time.”
For most of her life, Irwin suppressed feelings of gender dysphoria. She was born male but always felt different.
It wasn’t until recently, in her late 30s, that Irwin felt she could come out as transgender.
Intense bullying throughout primary school meant she didn’t learn to read or write until later in life. As soon as she was able to, she dropped out of high school.
She worked odd jobs in construction and labouring and tried to stay off people’s radars.
Her last hope will lie with a new initiative from the Auckland District Health Board which she hoped would mean she could be recommended for funding for more corrective surgery.
Without it she would be facing a lifetime of painkillers and living on the benefit.