Story by: ROB SETCHELL, Reporter Saturday, September 24, 2011 10:00 AM
A FENLAND man who suffers from severe heart problems has spoken of his relief after a Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard investigation successfully challenged a decision to declare him fit for work.
Justin Salih, from March, suffers from Sick Sinus Syndrome – a rare disease which causes his heart to “misfire” and beat abnormally.
The 26-year-old’s condition means that he suffers frequent blackouts. He has poor circulation, sickness and body pains and his weight has plummeted to nine stone.
He is cared for by his girlfriend, who has to clean and dress him, and he has a device implanted in his chest to record his heart rate. He has only been well enough to leave his home once in the last three months.
But the former gas engineer was this month declared fit to work by a “decision maker” at ATOS Healthcare – a company which gives advice to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on whether people are entitled to benefit.
Statement from the Department for Work and Pensions
A DWP spokesman said: “The Work Capability Assessment has been developed to look at what a person can do, as well as what they cannot.
“Everyone who is found able to work will get the support they need to get a job through the Work Programme.
“Those found too sick or disabled to work won’t be expected to and will continue to receive the help and support they need.
“Anyone who disagrees with a decision made on a claim has the right to appeal.”
This was because he had failed to turn up to two appointments with an ATOS doctor – once because he was in hospital and once because he was too ill to leave his flat.
Days later Mr Salih received letters to say that the employment support allowance he relies on to live had been stopped – and that his housing and council tax benefits had been suspended.
But following an investigation by this newspaper, the DWP reinstated his vital income on Wednesday and organised for a doctor to assess him at his home.
Mr Salih, who also has suspected Crohn’s Disease, said: “I was facing the prospect that, in two weeks, I could be disabled, ill and homeless.
“I feel like I’m 90 years old and on top of that I had to deal with the torment of not knowing what was going on with money I needed to live.
“When they rang to tell me they’d reinstated the allowance I was elated. I’m so grateful to the Cambs Times because I was getting nowhere by myself.
“You’ve helped me more than you will ever know.”
Mr Salih successfully disputed an ATOS ruling last year – which again claimed he was fit to work.
He provided doctor’s notes and a statement from leading cardiologist Dr Andrew Grace, from Papworth Hospital, who has treated former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“This time I was being left with no options and I felt like the world was against me. When the good news came this week I felt like I’d won the lottery because someone had actually listened to me.
Mr Salih had been an active sportsman and a successful gas engineer before he developed his illness four years ago.
“I was out having a meal with my family one night when I just stood up and passed out,” he said. “At first I thought I just had a cold or something but I kept feeling unwell.
“Originally the doctor thought it was an ear infection and he gave me some tablets to take. They did nothing so I went back and they referred me to hospital.
“For the next two years I was in and out of hospital every week. Hardly a night went by without me being in an ambulance from passing out.
“A lot of doctors have been baffled by it. I even had one doctor come in with a medical handbook to try and diagnose me.
“One night I went into Hinchingbrooke Hospital and my heart was going at 220 beats per minute. They had to give me a drug which effectively stopped my heart and restarted it.”
Mr Salih met his 20-year-old girlfriend, Stephanie Brown, in hospital.
“It’s been incredibly scary,” he said. “I’ve had so many things injected in me and I’ve stayed in hospital for months on end. I’ve spent two Christmas Days in hospital, two Easters and two birthdays.
“It’s just a waiting game. I want to get married and have a family and it’s all a case of when I’m better. It’s not fair.
“You don’t really expect to meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with in hospital. That’s probably the only positive thing to come out of all this.”