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View of the NHS from a hospital bed

10 October, 2019 — By John Gulliver

University College Hospital

THE patient opposite me in the hospital ward suddenly exclaimed in a loud voice as he was browsing a tabloid: “She’s a fine looking woman!” He was glancing at a picture of Boris Johnson’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds.

Those who morally disapprove of Boris Johnson’s dalliances wouldn’t be happy to hear him, I thought. But that was before news of Johnson’s relationship with the pole dancer Jennifer Arcuri. What my fellow patient would make of that I don’t know.

But I had, admittedly, other things on my mind as I lay in the Respiratory ward at University College Hospital, having been admitted in the early hours with, I discovered, a serious chest infection and pneumonia.

Yes, all this kept me from this column for the past few weeks, but it gave me an insight into life on a hospital ward.

I had spent the first few days in the acute medical ward before being transferred to the eighth floor and the Respiratory ward. By then a doctor and nurse had fixed a receptacle to my chest and had begun to drain the infected fluid into a bedside container.

I was an in-patient for two weeks and the doctors and nurses carried out the textbook procedures with amazing clockwork efficiency – blood pressure tests, various blood tests, fixing me up with a nebuliser every hour or so, and all this went on day and night.

There may be a shortage of nurses generally but there were no signs of this in the UCH wards – few were British, most came from other parts of Europe, Africa and the Far East. One, a Malaysian nurse, worked hard at cracking jokes while she kept a vigilant eye on her patients.

If the wards I was in are anything to go by you wonder where the NHS would be without these nurses who have come here from all over the world. It gives a different meaning to the immigration question.

As for hospital meals, once derided, I can only say the UCH scores highly – dishes were varied and well cooked. Little to fault there.

Are wards crowded? Is there a shortage of beds? Of course UCH is a flagship London hospital and standards would be expected to be higher than elsewhere but cracks still showed. There were five beds in my ward – and judging by the tight squeeze it should have been four, in my opinion.

One was occupied – permanently, it seemed – by a young man who appeared to be a “community in care patient”, that is waiting to be placed in a hostel. There was only one toilet for the patients, and queues would form from time to time.

And if the ward hummed with efficiency in the day time, the depleted rota of nurses at night showed. Once, I waited in pain for more than an hour in the early hours as no nurses responded to my cry for help.

There was little doubt there was a rhythm of efficiency, particularly in the early morning rounds by the consultant, followed by his entourage of six of seven young doctors, note-taking and smiling at his jokes. At that level the hospital scores.

But I got the impression that the senior doctors, in particular, were conscientiously working hard to cover up the cracks, aware of the queue of patients waiting, sometimes on trolleys, downstairs in A&E for a bed.

Whether patients may be discharged before they should be I don’t know but in my ward three out of the four “chest” patients went out on the same day, myself among them. In my case the whole operation seemed rushed – and it was, as it turned out.

The consultant told me I would be discharged in the evening, as arranged with my wife, but a new nurse on the ward thought otherwise and told me I would have to go early afternoon to a kind of departure lounge on the ground floor where one waits to leave the hospital, sometimes sitting there for six or seven hours. He felt confident enough to ignore the consultant – the pressure of the managers seemed too much for him.

There was such a rush, that the nurses left out a vital piece of medication to take home, and included something that I didn’t require: four packets of a highly specialised solvent that can only be injected by a doctor or nurse and was clearly not meant to be included in the discharge package.

The packets would have cost the NHS several hundred pounds. I discovered them when I was at home and, in any case, they can no longer be used, I understand, as they have been handled in the wrong way.

I told the nurse as I was being wheeled down to the lounge that I was being “evicted”, not discharged. But full marks to the hospital and the spirit of the NHS. But not to what is called after-care. Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to introduce a National Care Service, if elected, would be the soundest piece of legislation since the NHS was launched in 1948. It is so greatly needed.

I first came across how tattered the after-care service is in Islington when an eminent pensioners’ leader fell foul of it after treatment at the Whittington Hospital. He was basically left – after several weeks in hospital – to manage at home with no scheduled visits from a GP or a regular nurse. I took up his plight with the hospital but got nowhere.

I got the impression after-care can slip up at UCH. I can still hear a ringing argument between a patient in the “departure lounge”, just before I left UCH, and a hospital orderly who was explaining how he could get help from his GP.

“Yes, but in the real world, you know you can’t get to see your GP – that’s the real world, isn’t it?” There’s a lot in what he said.


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