Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The NHS: a patient's view

Last week I spent a couple of days and nights in the Whittington hospital. Don’t worry though, this post isn’t going to be about my ailments, but rather the current state of the NHS as I saw it during my thankfully brief stay.

Having been taken to hospital in an ambulance (no flashing lights, it wasn’t that serious), I was kept in Accident and Emergency on a trolley from about 1.30am till 10.30am, due to the fact that a bed couldn’t be found for me in the ward I needed to be on.

I couldn’t fault the staff who dealt with me during this time, though clearly being kept waiting whilst ill and in pain was far from ideal.

When I finally made it to the ward, I felt so grateful to get into my bed, albeit gingerly because of the double canula in my hand. The first thing I noticed though, on lying down, was that there were three big blobs of chewing gum stuck to the underside of the rail that runs around the middle of the wall, and that they were placed right next to my head. Hardly reassuring when we all already worry about ‘hospital superbugs’.

I am not the best of patients, being squeamish to an almost phobic degree, but the staff were reassuring, kind and funny. I saw one nurse repeatedly sit and talk with patients, getting to know them, and taking a real interest in their lives. She would pluck anything from the air and start a conversation about it – in my case, she asked me about my tattoos. She is the sort of person I would probably find a mite irritating in ‘real’ life, but ill in hospital, where even the most confident person feels somewhat child-like and diminished, I found her presence a great reassurance. When she went off shift at the end of the day, she told us what time she would be back the next morning, and I actively looked forward to her reappearance.

Because night time was a different story. Two nurses were in sole charge of the ward, and they made it no secret that they were struggling, complaining non-stop, angrily, that they couldn’t cope with their workload. I can’t blame them for their attitude, but it didn’t feel at all reassuring for us patients.

As the night shift started, an elderly woman from the Congo, who spoke no English, was wheeled from theatre into the bay next to mine. Confused and afraid, naked but for an undone surgical gown, she launched herself out of her bed, despite the fact that she was both attached to a drip and had an epidural in her spine. I remonstrated that she stay where she was, and called for the nurse. The nurse shouted at her and wrestled the woman back into her bed, whilst the woman talked urgently in her native language, of which of course no one understood a word.

She kept saying one word again and again; I forget what it was now, but let’s, for argument’s sake, say it was ‘lette’. “Lette?” said the nurse gruffly. ”Whatever lette means!” She marched off, and I was reminded of the bullying midwives I had endured at the Royal Free Hospital in January 2007, who I still have very real nightmares about today.

The milk of human kindness was again in evidence when I needed help in the night. After going to the toilet, I started to feel very faint. A nurse had her back to me, and was doing some admin. “I feel faint,” I said, bending forwards and placing my drip back on a chair that was handy. The nurse didn’t turn around and simply muttered “in a minute.”

Clearly these two nurses were in a difficult situation, short-staffed and run off their feet. But if you cannot summon up the ability to be kind in a job like nursing, it’s time to leave.

I also wondered if their anti-social hours were badly affecting their behaviour and judgement. Taking my blood pressure and pulse, one of them proceeded to wheel away the machine without undoing the cuff and the clip from my arm and finger respectively, leading me to cry out “I’m still attached!” (I was most alarmed because it was the same arm as the double canula was in, and it was pulling on the vein as a consequence). “I’m sorry, darling!” said the nurse, coming back to rectify her mistake. Sleep deprived, I wondered?

I myself was sleep-deprived after that night, which was marked by the harrowing cries of pain from my fellow patients. One woman was held down as she has a catheter inserted, the nurses repeatedly shouting at her to “relax!” Another woman cried out with severe abdominal pains, her waters having broken after a pregnancy of just 17 weeks. There is no privacy or dignity with only a thin curtain separating you from other people’s traumas and tragedies.

Despite the negative experience of the night shift, I was left with a feeling of intense respect for the medical staff I came into contact with. Who on earth would take on a low paid job with anti-social hours, which involved heavy lifting, emotional upheaval and endless gore? Where you might be torn between twenty needy, demanding patients, have to complete endless, seemingly needless paperwork, and spend a lot of your time cleaning up piss, shit and vomit? How much less worthwhile will this work seem when the NHS is carved up, sold off to the highest bidder, and profit rather than care becomes king?

I hope I never have to look back on this hospital visit and think: that’s when we had an NHS. That’s when we didn’t have to worry about how much treatment cost, because we used to believe that the right to good healthcare was intrinsic to a democratic society. When healthcare professionals, rather than being motivated by money simply had an innate desire to help people.

We have a wonderful thing in the NHS. We’ve seen it run down and left to rot many times over the past few decades, with many people who can afford it abandoning ship and going private. I think we have to shout from the rooftops that most of us aren’t willing to do that – we want an NHS that’s fit for purpose that allows those nurses and other medical staff the chance to do the work they need and want to do; to treat people with dignity, as individuals, and nurse them back to better health.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

All aboard the sleeper train!

I've been meaning to write about sleeper trains for a while, because having been on them a few times now, and having mentioned them to lots of people, I've been really surprised by how many people just don't know they exist in the UK.

They do exist! Two of them, to be exact. There's the Caledonian Sleeper, which goes to the Scottish Highlands, and there's the Night Riviera, which goes to Cornwall.

Sleeper cabins are either single or double (the latter come with bunk beds). A family can get adjoining cabins, which means you can open the inter-connecting door, thus giving you much more space. They are actually a great way to transport children - ! - because they of course get very excited by the adventure of it all (as do I, to be honest), and yet you can contain them in the cabin, rather than have them run up and down the train, annoying people.

Also, the rhythm of the train will soon send them off to sleep (that's not just my optimistic theory, it genuinely is the case, with my daughter at least). Whether the same can be said for adults is another matter, though the beds are comfortable and there are actual duvets. Yes, duvets on a train. (Note: in the above picture, I am merely pretending to be asleep - drat. Clementine, however, isn't pretending at all!)

As someone with a bad back, I love to lie down (nothing to do with being a lazy so-and-so, oh, no...), and just the thought of sitting all the way to Scotland and back has me reaching for the Tramadol. Another point I hardly need to mention is that the carbon emissions are going to be vastly lower than if you chose to fly. They just need to make taking the sleeper a more economically viable option (though you can get some good-priced tickets) and it would be the obvious choice for most of us.

In short, nothing beats getting on the train in London and, upon waking, pulling up the blind to see snow-topped mountains rolling past. 'Where are we?' is the of course the obligatory first question of the day!

Monday, 7 March 2011

No to AV's spectacular own goal

In Leeds yesterday I saw a huge 'No to AV' campaign billboard. It featured a newborn baby in possibly a doctor's hands. The slogan read something along the lines of 'She needs a new maternity ward. She doesn't need an Alternative Vote system'.

Whilst I am delighted that the No campaign are doing some important campaigning to improve maternity services in the UK (I am being a little sarcastic here, in case you're wondering), I'm a little confused by what the state of maternity care has to do with AV.

Oh, I get it! If we had a fairer (not fair, but fairer) voting system, MPs would have to actually work hard to keep the support of the majority of their constituents. Rather than sweeping away the long-term problems (such as the crisis in maternity services), they would have to address them, not just with fine words ('maternity matters'!), but with concrete deeds.

So that means a 'Yes' vote in May is the way forward. 'No' Campaign, I think that's what you call an own goal...

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Eigg: Big Green Footsteps for us to follow

I doubt many people have heard of the Isle of Eigg (pronounced 'egg’), which is one of the ‘Small Isles’ situated off the western coast of the Scottish Highlands. It is only five and a half miles long, with 95 inhabitants, and it has a distinctive appearance, making it easy to spot from the ferry, because of ‘An Sgurr’, a great stump of columnar pitchstone lava. I spent just a couple of wet and windswept hours there last week, but it made a deep impression on me for several reasons.

Eigg has a troubled history. A lengthy feud between the McLeod and the McDonald clans led to a massacre of 395 inhabitants in a cave in the 16th Century. Fast forward to more recent times, and the island was sold by one negligent owner to the next. Keith Schellenberg, for example, the Olympic bobsleigher and gelatine heir (now there’s a C.V!), let properties run to rack and ruin during his time as ‘laird’, and drove many people from the island. His vintage Bentley was set on fire for retribution: not happy times.

Indeed, there are still signs of the dilapidation that the succession of ‘negligent landlords’ left in their wake; neglect, it seems, is hard – and costly – to rectify. Stumbling across a house where windows and doors, and even at one side, a floor were missing, but which still contained furniture, books, a cooker and a kettle, I couldn’t help but wonder at the tiny island’s sad, embattled past. (The photo of the staircase, above, is taken inside this eerie abandoned house).

In 1997, though, things started to change for the better. The islanders managed to raise the money to buy the island for themselves, and since then they have started to take, in their own words, ‘big Green footsteps.’

Houses on the island used to get their electricity from diesel generators, but now, with 3 hydroelectric generators (pictured above), 4 wind turbines and photovoltaic cells (also pictured above) on some buildings, Eigg is self-sufficient. Eigg homes only produce a third of the waste of other UK households, and are working at sending less skips of rubbish to the mainland. They plan to produce their own food in the future, meaning they do not have to have food ferried over as much.

No surprise, then, with such a small group of people working towards the same goals, there is a great sense of community here. The community noticeboard, which I perused on my all-too-brief visit, was a truly heart-warming sight. There were colourful notices for a singing group, community meetings, art projects and plenty of socials.

I am keen to go back to Eigg, possibly in the summer, when the community runs courses in sustainability (although the website about these courses is not up to date, and I wonder whether this project has got off the ground). Not content on just creating their own little Green utopia, the islanders also hope that their message and way of life will catch on elsewhere. In a leaflet I picked up there, they write ‘we hope what we have done will inspire you to do something, too. (…). Any community can be a green island.’

I quite agree – and I can’t recommend a trip to this little-known island highly enough!