NHS frontline feels like a battlefield for patients and staff alike
Sarah Morgan Jones
Three weeks ago, I was lying in bed wondering – with remarkably little concern – how would my funeral be paid for if I died that night.
I was ill, more so than I can ever remember, and it had been four days since I suddenly became unwell and was told by my GP that it was probably COVID (it wasn’t), to go and rest in bed.
I should have been in a hospital bed mainlining antibiotics, fluids and oxygen. That’s where I wanted to be and that’s where the medics wanted me to be. But there were no beds, and not much of a chance of one before Monday, so the consultant had reluctantly allowed me to go home.
24 hours prior, I had been diagnosed with pneumonia and a pleural effusion, rigged up with a cannula, and told that I needed to be admitted as soon as possible, but ‘would I mind sitting back out in the A&E waiting room’ until they could find me a bed.
Five hours later, I was still there, surrounded by many other sick and injured souls, feeling dreadful. About midnight I pleaded for help, was taken to a hard chair near the emergency department nursing station, and connected to a saline drip and antibiotics.
There I sat, variously accompanied by other sitters who were sick or injured until my drip was removed at 8am. I was sleepless and miserable, desperate to lie down, desperate to sleep, desperate for a cup of tea.
Around me the department never stopped for a moment. A constant influx of sick people, sicker than me, despite how dreadful I felt. A constant level of activity responding to the incomers who were arriving with strokes and broken bones and failing hearts and minds which were spinning out of control.
This was the second completely sleepless night in a row, since I took a taxi to the hospital on Friday night, breathless and in agony, as the wait for an ambulance was four hours.
It was four days since I had become ill, and another two before we would get to the bottom of what was going on.
My relationship with the NHS has always been great. I belong to a GP surgery which really seems to have it sussed regarding appointments and referrals, really seemed to have mastered the challenges of the pandemic and I have never had to wait long to be seen by the appropriate professional.
I am from a family knee deep in nurses, past and present, and I worked in the NHS myself for 15 years, so I have nothing but respect for the staff, increasingly overworked and in the firing line of sick and frustrated patients and families.
I am familiar with the workings and the pressures for the staff, and over the years have spent countless hours in hospitals, wards and A&E, with each of my parents, my children, my partner and myself.
I have never seen it like this.
The ambulances were lined up outside, a couple of police vans waited in bays, custodians of those too agitated to join the rest of us, pairs of police officers were attached to others requiring medical attention, broken footballers sat alongside old ladies with dementia alongside the club-land-walking-wounded-and-worse-for-wear.
Dozens of us sat, waiting and hoping every time a member of staff came through the door of the treatment area, hoping our name would be next.
But each member of staff who called out a name or emerged on their way to their next task on that relentless list of tasks, were experts at not catching an eye, knowing if they did, they would be waylaid and derailed.
Meanwhile over the tannoy, a voice evidently at the end of her tether, laden with the frustrations of trying to balance patients vs spaces vs staff, would announce every hour an extra hour of waiting time.
By dawn the wait time had increased to 12 hours and she told the waiting wounded that minor injuries might as well go home because they were not going to be seen anytime soon.
Many of the people I had been waiting with on Saturday night were still there when I left on Sunday morning, greeting me like someone who’d made it through on behalf of us all.
When I told them I too had been sitting there all night (albeit with some treatment while I sat) their optimism faded.
Back home in my bed, I had resigned myself to riding out the pneumonia at home (wondering about this funeral), when a friend messaged me, a nurse, telling me that the effusion was the thing to be concerned about and that I must not give up, I should go back to the GP in the morning.
Prepped with an overnight bag, snacks, a flask, a book, a cushion, I spent the next two days, in a different hospital, where I waited some more before being scanned and told I could add a pulmonary embolism to my diagnoses.
The consultants in each hospital were unhappy they could not find a bed for me, the nursing staff were always flat out, the waiting built into everyone’s expectations, a normality. There was nothing to do but submit to the process and cope.
Those who know me know I am not incapable of making myself heard. I know how and when to speak up for myself and others if I need to. On this occasion I felt so helpless, and surrounded by the many other sick faces, and looking at the staff, I could see I was not alone.
Each day during my ‘ordeal’ (sounds hyperbolic, but for me it was just that), someone, whether the GP or the consultant or the triage nurse, or the porter wheeling me to x-ray, expressed fear for the future of the NHS. One said they thought they were being set up to fail, another that the blame sat squarely at the government’s door, another predicting five years before privatisation.
They felt overwhelmed already and the flu season is yet to begin, and they were embarrassed that there was simply nowhere to put me, and some were back in working on their rest day.
My ordeal is unique to me. I’m on the mend and have time to recover.
The staff I encountered see hundreds of these ordeals, and far worse, every day, and must endure the relentless pace and trauma, with little or no time to recoup.
Without them, there is no NHS. They cannot be set up to fail. We need them.
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