Hospitals are supposed to make you better but in my work as a funeral celebrant I often hear about people going in for routine operations and ending up with an infection or developing other complications that go on to kill them. We’ve become all too familiar with eye grabbing headlines and hospital cuts, the NHS at crisis point. And so when my dad became ill and was taken to hospital I wanted to see, first hand what things were really like.
My dad lives in the East Midlands. I’ll be deliberately vague. He lives on the edge of three counties but treatment has to be in the county you live in which is not necessarily the nearest hospital.
I ring NHS 111 non-emergency number after he passes a huge quantity of blood from his back passage. The questions they ask are robotic and irrelevant but as soon as I have finished answering them the call handler says he’s called an ambulance. This arrives within ten minutes – pretty impressive I think. The hospital however is 20 miles away by motorway. If his condition had been life threatening he might have died on route.
He arrives at the A and E – a superb new complex costing a staggering £40 million. The hospital is in the city centre and parking is expensive and the signs directing you to the multi-storey parking are complicated and not at all straightforward. At the reception there are ten members of staff, some of whom are chatting rather than attending to queries. The waiting area is very busy. It is 5am, Monday morning and I count 80 people waiting. My dad doesn’t have to wait – he is taken straight to an area called ‘Majors.’ (Life threatening illnesses as opposed to routine accidents.) There are large rooms for each patient with sliding glass doors. He has a trolley type bed which looks comfortable but he says it isn’t. He has a 15 hour wait in A and E before a bed becomes available. During this time he has his blood pressure checked and several blood tests are done. I assist him to the toilet where he passes more blood. I go to find somebody to tell them that the toilet, basin and floor need cleaning and shouldn’t be used by others until it’s done, but nobody seems in a rush to clean it. I ask two further members of staff to disinfect it and stand outside the toilet until they come.
The TV drama Casualty is always busy with staff dashing about like headless chicken. There is no sense of urgency here. That TV drama doesn’t represent what really goes on. In fact all of the doctors and nurses are sitting at work-stations behind computers rather than dashing about attending to patients, probably dealing with the bureaucracy of running the ward and completely records rather than treating the patients.
After 15 hours a bed becomes available and he is transferred to a ward. I return to my dad’s house to see to his dog and drive to the hospital hours later. Crammed in the lift going up to the ward are the following assortment of people: Asian man in white tunic and flip flops, lady in curlers and headscarf, girl with ripped jeans, more ripped than jeans, man with heavy body odour, Asian lady in beautiful glittery sari. Two staff enter at the last minute with an empty bed. We all pin ourselves to the edges to give them room and by floor one somebody has made the predictable joke that they are so tired they could do with a sleep on the bed. One by one the others smile, appreciating the joke and by floor four the lady in curlers suggests that in fact the bed is large enough for all of us to get on. A couple of people don’t find it funny. Their faces are rigid and fixed on the doors waiting for them to open.
The hand sanitizers are empty and eventually the automatic doors to the ward open. Nobody notices I’m a stranger on the ward. I could be a terrorist with a backpack waiting to explode. I stand at the reception bay. There are several folders with ‘confidential’ printed across the front, sitting on the desk and I can see the names and dates of birth and if I had a shopping bag I could easily whisk them away without anybody noticing. There’s also a trolley sitting next to the desk containing more confidential files. I give up and go in search of my dad finding him tucked away in the corner, next to the window which overlooks the football stadium. He tells me he’s in a lot of pain. I pull the sheet over this leg and he winces. A short while later the doctor comes over to chat with me. He fell during the night and has probably broken his hip. I ask how it happened and who was with him and the doctor is vague as to how this happened. ‘Are there notes,’ I ask ‘stating how he came to fall?’ The doctor shrugs and doesn’t reply.
They give him morphine to ease the pain and he has another 15 odd hours to wait before they scan him and find a break. The doctor tells me that his concern is now his hip rather than the fact he’s been passing huge quantities of blood and hasn’t eaten for two weeks. They do give him a couple of blood transfusions but tell us he will be given an outpatient appointment for an endoscopy to investigate his stomach. The following day he has his hip replaced.
Over the two days that I’m here sitting in the ward I see trays of food arrive for the other patients. They sit on tables in front of the patient, uneaten because they can’t feed themselves and half an hour later somebody returns to collect the trays, asking the patient, who is asleep and cannot answer, if they have finished. I am so incensed by what I see that I ask if I can feed them myself. Between stabs of peas and spoonfuls of fish I transform into a political campaigner. I see myself with a placard outside number 10 demanding something is done. I’m not campaigning for more money. Our taxes are crippling enough as it is. I’m campaigning for better use of money, I’m campaigning for logic and common sense. It’s all too easy to throw money at the NHS but it’s a bottomless pit and will never be enough. I don’t even think this hospital is short staffed. When I go to look for a nurse I find them standing around with no sense of urgency as if they don’t have much to do.
The crisis in the NHS might not be all about injecting money, it’s about much more. I think it’s about mismanagement, waste, poor priorities and too much bureaucracy. No matter how much money we plough into it, somehow it will never be enough.