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.


  1. funny you mention the bullying midwives at Royal Free. we experienced the same thing after the birth of our twins there in 2010 - one particularly horrible character went so far in her sarcastic power games as to withhold doctor-prescribed medication because of some perceived slight on our part. later they tried to prevent us leaving (and freeing up the bed) because they hadn't got around to doing some minor bit of paperwork. we'd given them all day to get it done so we left anyway! they seemed to think the place was a prison and we were their inmates. just awful. there was one nice midwife, and we used to dread the end of her shift...

    have also experienced Whittington (birth of first child). what a dive!

  2. I wonder if your bullying midwife was the same one that I put a compliant in to the Healthcare Commission and the Nursing and Midwifery Council about? Neither complaints were upheld!

    Now, as a member of the Maternity Services committee at the Royal Free, I am told that ‘that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.’ From your evidence, it clearly – and sadly – does.

    I also wonder if your kind midwife is the same one that was my lifeline during my 6 days on the post-natal ward? I remember hanging on to her arm, sincerely thanking her for looking after my daughter and I so well, for being our advocate. She was the only midwife on that ward who showed me any real kindness.

    Your tale of having your discharge from the hospital delayed also sounds familiar. It happened to me, and to my neighbour who gave birth there the year before me.

    As for the Whittington, I agree it was a dive but thankfully it has been done up beyond recognition. Blobs of chewing gum notwithstanding.

  3. we didn't make a complaint, so terminally lazy are we. i couldn't even muster up a sarcastic thankyou card! despicable behaviour though. Zimbardo in action!

  4. So sorry to hear about your experience at The Whittington last week. Please could you ring 020 7288 5983 to discuss further and so we can learn from it. Look forward to hearing from you.