No sleep, little care, no medication: my 80-hour A&E ordeal

When covert video footage emerged of Boris Johnson leaving St Thomas’ hospital in south London after being treated for Covid there two years ago, I wondered if, being a VIP, he had received a different standard of care from the average patient.

I can safely say that had Johnson – or better yet, Sajid Javid – experienced anything like I did during an almost unimaginable, yet very real, 80-hour stay in A&E last week, the NHS just might be in line for some positive changes in the future, rather than its inevitable deeper plunge into crisis.

I saw first-hand over the course of three long nights and four days just what a catastrophic predicament the NHS is in. I’ve got stage-four cancer, and when my condition rapidly declined at home last week, both my GP and a specialist cancer care nurse urged me to go to A&E. A previous visit had left me stranded on a wheelchair outside a toilet in a corridor for more than seven hours before I discharged myself. I begged for other options. But there were none.

All my worst fears came true. The A&E was so understaffed that patients were often unable to access adequate, let alone good or outstanding care – through no fault of the staff, the vast majority of whom clearly care deeply about their jobs and their patients. The hospital was in “black status” when I was there, meaning there were no beds available at all. The staff themselves were astonished by the length of my stay in A&E without being transferred to a bed on a ward.

I vacillated between utter anguish, mental breakdown (sleep is impossible; no visitors are allowed) and desperate action (firing off emails to every single medic I could think of, including the head of the trust). Some of my vital medications were delayed by hours, and I was left drenched in my own urine for about 40 minutes.

And I was one of the lucky ones. Everyone is vulnerable in hospital, but the vast majority of patients there were among the most powerless in society – elderly, frail, and many clearly with dementia. They shouted out helplessly for nurses, but were often not heard due to the chaos. Security guards and police were a regular presence dealing with disruptive and gravely disturbed patients; people on trolleys took up every available inch of space.

Eventually, on the last day, I was seen by what felt like every single doctor and admin person in the hospital, including the head of nursing – something a friend who works in an A&E in London said she had never heard of happening before. The doctors had a flurry of information and diagnoses for me; a rare blood disease had finally been pinpointed; another blood transfusion was needed; gastric and respiratory specialists wanted to say their piece; and I was promised a ward bed by the end of he day – although that quickly changed to being discharged. It did not make up for the previous four days when, except at point of admission, I saw an oncologist just once, and that was only after desperately ringing around the hospital switchboard from my bed.

On my final stretch, having requested but not received my pain and anti-sickness medication, which meant I was unable to eat, I was taken to a waiting area where hospital transport would, eventually, take me home. At the point of total, traumatic breakdown, I begged for my medicine – only to find there was just one nurse charged with medicating 30 people. Another nurse came in and said the hospital was as bad as he had ever seen it. It was, he said, “dangerously busy”. Apparently, 500 people had come through A&E that day, and it was only about 8pm.

When the nurse finally approached to give me my medication, a standoff ensued. I flinched, and warned her it would hurt going into my cannula. My veins had given up. She couldn’t give it to me then, she said. Maybe a direct injection instead. “No, put it in the cannula,” I begged, “they don’t care in A&E”. In my highly emotional state, I meant that they know it hurts and they do it regardless.

She stepped back from me, put her hand on her chest and looked genuinely offended. “We do care,” she said. “This is A&E. We do care.” And she did. She summoned a healthcare assistant to hold my hand and try to distract me by asking me about my daughter I was so desperate to go home to. Her no-nonsense manner melted away and she sang to me while putting my medicine through my worn-out veins as tears rolled down my cheeks. Shortly afterwards I was taken home – the best journey of my life.

I am just one patient among many. There are millions of similarly vulnerable, desperately ill people in hospitals up and down the country. The spectre of disaster hovering over our healthcare system can be traced back directly to 2010, when Tory budget cuts slashed training places for medics, leading us neatly to today’s dire staff shortages. Add in Brexit and rising coronavirus cases – last week an estimated 5 million people in the UK had the disease, patients are pouring through A&E doors, and there is no glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Many may end up in grave danger thanks to this government making it nearly impossible for dedicated, hard-working and underpaid staff to translate their care and attention more thoroughly to them.

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