One night in Accident and Emergency

THERE was a dreadful stabbing pain across my lower belly as I stood up and I knew immediately I was going to pass out. A fall against the plate glass shower screen was a certain disaster so I grabbed the bathroom radiator and called for help. My wife helped me slide down the wall to the cold bathroom floor where I lay like Ahab’s great white whale on the brink of oblivion. She dialled 999 and coaxed me to a couch where I could stretch out in a degree of comfort. After two feverish nights and three days of discomfort there was no fear and almost a sense of relief. I was glad that whatever was haunting my worn-out innards was finally reaching a vicious climax.

It took four hours for the ambulance to arrive and the paramedics gave me a thorough examination before deciding to admit me to A&E. The next problem was finding a hospital that could take another patient. It was eventually decided that my nearest one was available so off we set for the Ulster, at Dundonald, just 10 miles away. The crew and patient sat at the doors of A&E for around an hour before I was ushered inside and offered a bed. I expressed my thanks to the paramedics and they departed for the next emergency call. A nurse in heavy PPE gear took my temperature again, my blood pressure and some blood. The department was busy with elderly people and a few mothers with crying infants. Somewhere a poor soul was howling in pain like a heretic in the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. It was around 8.30pm, and I was just getting comfortable, when the nurse returned and told me she needed the bed. I was directed to a corridor and sat down on a cold, hard metal bench in an effort to put ‘social distance’ between me and the next patient.

It was another two hours before I got to see a doctor. She apologised that there was no privacy as I explained my symptoms in front of an alcoholic with cardio problems and a silent elderly man who looked at death’s door. I was hooked up to a drip which delivered Paracetamol and then fluids, instructed to provide a urine sample and sent to X-ray. Then I was sent back to my cold, hard chair this time pulling the drip stand beside me like Fred Astaire with Ginger Rodgers on his arm. By now the alcoholic was looking thoroughly hung-over and insisting that he go home to his ‘wee dog.’ The doctors told him in no uncertain terms that he should stay for the test results and that he appeared to have had a serious cardio episode. He called his son who also told him to stay where he was. About 1.00am he disappeared into the cold night in his shorts and T-shirt. By this time my fluids had run through and I was anticipating a night on the cold, hard chair with the cannula in my arm and only Ginger Rodgers for company. A cheerful young man called my name and invited me to take a cardio test. He said the results were fine. Around 2.00am the doctor appeared again, this time clutching several boxes of medication. She explained what had happened, a flare-up of diverticulitis, and that I would be fine if I followed the instructions on the boxes. She unhooked me from Ginger Rodgers and said: “You can go now.”

I phoned my wife but got no answer. I assumed she was fast asleep and did not hear the phone. She phoned me back and said she would pick me up in a half hour. I set off for the ‘come-in-and-eat-24 hours-a-day’ McDonald’s across the road in the hope of a coffee but it was closed. My wife was as good as her word. I was soon home and tucked up in bed none the worse for my hospital experience. I am on my way to a full recovery.

When the National Health Service was proposed, as part of the Beveridge Report in 1942, it was resisted by Northern Ireland’s unionist government, the Catholic Church and the British Medical Association which threatened to boycott the new hospitals. It would not have come into existence had it not been for the resounding victory of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party over Churchill’s Conservatives in the 1945 general election. Health Minister Aneurin Bevin said it gave the UK the moral leadership of the world. “No society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.In other countries they check your bank balance before they take your temperature. But the NHS has been a political football since its birth 72 years ago, part-privatised and starved of funding by successive Conservative governments whose chief aim is to cut taxes and create profits for the few. Modern Labour has fared little better in its management of this great institution. Too many citizens take it for granted or even abuse it by failing to turn up for appointments and ordering drugs they don’t need or can well afford to pay for over the counter.

My latest experience is a reminder that even when it is under intense strain the NHS system works. The consumer simply has to be ‘patient’ and wait for help. There are always others who are in more need, who must be seen first and it is the job of experienced staff to make these decisions, sometimes life and death decisions, on our behalf. We owe them our respect, our gratitude and our trust. It is going to be a long winter in A&E and the return of Covid-19 will put health and care workers and their families at risk. So think of Bevan next time you feel ill, but remember resources are scarce and staff members are working to the point of exhaustion and beyond.


© Maurice Neill 2020

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