It’s that time of year when the news headlines at a local and national level are splattered with horror stories of extensive waiting times at A&E departments across the country and of lengthy response times from the ambulance service.
Unfortunately, over the first few days of 2018 we have had to make good use of the NHS.
I’m not writing this with the intention of seeking sympathy or attention but to highlight the experiences we have shared and to give a parent’s perspective on the issues we encountered.
There are three parts to this tale but I’ll start with a little basic background to set the scene.
My Girl Child developed an inflammatory condition called costochondritis in October 2016. Basically, its an inflammation of the cartilage between the breast bone and the ribs. It is excruciatingly painful and initially presented with symptoms representative of a heart attack. ( Here’s a link with more details – https://www.healthline.com/health/costochondritis#causes) Very scary to witness! After a few weeks, it all settled down and soon she had been pain free for a number of months – happy days!
On 30th December, out of the blue, the crushing, crippling pain hit her again.
Despite still being sore and worn out, Girl Child went to work on 31st December. Mid-afternoon, I got a call to say she had taken unwell and was suffering from chest pains. As her dad, The Big Green Gummi Bear (TBGGB) flew out the door to fetch her, I advised her colleague to keep her calm. By the time TBGGB arrived at the mall 15 minutes later she had collapsed, had been struggling to breathe and was barely conscious. An ambulance had been called. It took almost an hour for the ambulance to arrive by which time she had recovered enough to be sitting up with a drink of water. The paramedics checked her over thoroughly, concluded that the costochondritis was the most likely cause and, as her observations were all fine, they allowed her to go home with her dad. (He was now almost in need of medical attention having been totally traumatised by the whole thing.) Once home, Girl Child explained that the chest pain itself hadn’t been that severe but that she had felt as though her airway was being crushed. This was a new symptom…. and a worrying one.
Mid-afternoon 1st January, she was sitting calmly watching TV in our study, when suddenly and without warning, she fell off the chair and collapsed on the floor out cold. Fortunately, she didn’t hit anything on the way down and after a few long minutes she began to come round. She was fairly unresponsive to basic questions for about 10 minutes. I wanted to take her straight to A&E but was convinced by her and TBGGB to call NHS24 instead to seek their advice. Girl Child explained that the pain level hadn’t spiked this time but again she had felt like someone was cutting off her airways so that she couldn’t take a breath. She compared it to standing on a hosepipe to stop the water coming out.
After being on hold for about 20 minutes, I spoke with a lovely, calming call handler at NHS24. She took all the details, conferred with the onsite clinician then advised me to take my daughter to the emergency out of hours clinic at a nearby health centre. It took about 20 minutes to get to the health centre by which time Girl Child felt OK-ish. With the absolute minimum wait, we saw a GP who again said it all still sounded like costochondritis. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem too concerned about the breathing issues. He prescribed a strong anti-inflammatory gel to complement the drugs she was already taking. It was after 5pm by this time and the local emergency pharmacy was closed. We returned home.
Around 3.30am on 2nd January I wakened and heard a strange noise coming from Girl Child’s room. I rushed in and found her struggling to breathe. She wasn’t quite unconscious but again she was completely unresponsive to simple commands like “look at me” and “squeeze my hand”. I wakened TBGGB to help me with her and we considered dialling 999. He talked me out of it. Gradually she began to respond and about 15 minutes later she was back with us. I stayed with her until she settled then returned to my own bed. Sleep refused to come.
My instructions to TBGGB and Boy Child as I left for work a few short hours later were simple. Call 999 if this happens again.
To her credit, Girl Child hung in there all day without any major incidents.
Early evening, we sat down to watch one of the Harry Potter films. I was aware she was a little quieter than normal and was keeping an eye on her. Around 8pm things flared up again. Within a minute she was struggling to breathe, unresponsive and hot and clammy. TBGGB dialled 999 and passed me the phone. I spoke with the operator who was fantastic. She kept me calm-ish and advised me of what to do. Within 5 minutes two paramedics arrived by car. They had only just begun to attend to Girl Child when the ambulance arrived.
Within 10 minutes of dialling 999 my living room was crowded with paramedics. All four of them were brilliant.
Again, all of Girl Child’s observations were within normal limits but she was still struggling with her breathing so the ambulance crew advised that we should attend our local A&E.
After a flurry of fetching shoes, jackets and her medication, I followed as Girl Child was wheeled out to the waiting ambulance. Within minutes we were on our way to the local hospital.
The paramedic asked me to go in ahead of them and register Girl Child’s arrival.
When I walked into the A&E department, total chaos met me at the door. It was like a scene from a news report from a Third World hospital.
The waiting room was full and overflowing. The corridors were full. Every room and cubicle were full.
The information board advised the published waiting time was 6 hours.
I gave the receptionist Girl Child’s details and rushed back round to find her at the ambulance bay. She was wheeled in, transferred to a wheelchair and wrapped in a thin blanket. The paramedic gave a comprehensive handover to one of the nurses who then completed a fresh set of observations before warning us we’d have a bit of a wait to see a doctor. Somewhere in the midst of this TBGGB arrived.
My best guess at the time was around 9pm.
We were all scared. All a bit unsure about what was going on with her health. We’re neither stupid nor selfish and recognised that we were going to be in for a long wait as there were so many obviously sick people around us.
We waited. TBGGB paced. I sat on the floor beside Girl Child keeping a close eye on her.
We waited, watching the scenes unfolding around us, watching the ambulance crews return time and again with more patients.
Around 12.45am Boy Child was summoned to collect TBGGB to take him home. He felt there was no point in us both waiting and cluttering the place up.
We’d been there for roughly 4 hours at this point and, apart from the handover between the nurse and the paramedic, we hadn’t spoken to another medically trained soul. No one had even paused to check if she was ok. No one had paused to check if any of the waiting patients were ok.
Girl Child was asking for a drink of water by this time so I headed round to the nurses’ station to see if it was Ok to give her one and also to ask where to find one. There were three of them there laughing and joking and enjoying some festive treats. I was directed through the maze of short corridors to a water cooler. Not one nurse asked me if Girl Child was ok. Not one nurse asked if her breathing had settled down. I had also taken the opportunity to ask how many people there were ahead of us in the queue to be seen by the doctor and was told that there were seven.
Shortly after 2am the pain flared again and Girl Child began to get quite emotional and distressed. I ran back round to the nurses’ station to seek help. A nurse followed me back to the waiting area, repeated the observations, declared them normal but said she would try to speak with the doctor. While Girl Child struggled to get a breath, I sat holding her, willing this nightmare to end. The nurse returned with two plastic cups – one half full with water and one with some Gaviscon. She handed Girl Child two paracetamol and two ibuprofen and told her to take the lot. The pain was still increasing at this stage and breathing was obviously difficult for her. Girl Child was becoming very emotional. I asked what the Gaviscon was meant to do to help here as she was not suffering from any digestive issues. The response from the nurse was “Dr says she’s to take it.” I asked if there was anything else they could do to help me here with her and was told “No.” I asked, admittedly a little sarcastically, if I needed to wait until she collapsed again out cold on the floor before she got any help. The nurse said “Yes” and walked off.
I was stunned.
It took a while but I kept Girl Child calm and the pain settled down a little and her breathing became more regular once more.
Over the next few hours we went through a tornado of emotions. She cried. She shouted angrily at me. She sulked. She cried some more.
She’s only seventeen. She was scared. We both were.
Girl Child is a student nurse and the scenes around her were adding to her distress. It was going against everything she has been taught. It was breaking her heart to see not only how she was being treated but how many of the other seriously ill and frail patients were being handled around us.
One old man was brought in and parked in a bed beside us. Like we’d experienced several hours before, after the initial handover from the paramedics, no one came near him. He looked like death. No one was waiting with him. He was all alone.
We sat and watched as a woman was brought in by ambulance suffering breathing difficulties and was whisked more or less straight into a cubicle. Girl Child looked at me with both fear and anger as if to say “Why is she being treated and I’m not?”
At some point (sorry, I lost track of time a bit through fear and exhaustion) I went in search of a vending machine. Both of us were hungry and thirsty. The two machines, usually filled with juices and snacks, were empty save for a handful of dodgy looking cereal bars. The tea/coffee machine was out of order. There was nothing available.
At one point shortly after this, Girl Child needed the loo. When I helped her round to the toilet adjacent to the nurses’ station, we observed several of them again laughing and joking, as they shared a pizza. Now, I don’t grudge anyone a little light relief at their work and I’d never deny anyone sustenance but the perception that this created in the circumstances was that these healthcare professionals didn’t care about the dozens of patients and their concerned relatives filling the department, who were finding it a challenge to get so much as a drink of water.
As time dragged on, we both watched several people surrender and head home without being treated, including one patient with a leaking surgical wound.
Still no one came near us. No one came near the old man who by now had fallen asleep or lost consciousness. Who knows! At least we could see he was still breathing.
I went in search of the water cooler once more to fetch myself a drink. The route I’d taken through the plaster room was now closed as the room was in use. An auxiliary was cleaning the floor and I asked her if there was another way through. She asked where I was sitting, said not to worry myself that she’d fetch me a drink and bring it round. A rare moment of empathy and kindness that wasn’t lost on me. At last someone with people’s comfort in mind.
At 4am I asked how far up the queue we were. There still four people ahead of us.
In two hours they had worked their way through three patients….or had they? Had these poor souls actually surrendered and left? I’ll never know.
Finally, just after 4.30am we were taken round to a room. Girl Child was given a robe and told to slip it on and we were advised that the doctor wouldn’t be too long.
Then we waited….. and waited.
We watched the hands on the wall clock crawl round.
Girl Child was getting sore again and emotional.
Knowing it was pointless to seek help, I consoled her as best I could.
By 6.55am we had both reached the end of our tethers. She was sore and exhausted and had been for countless hours. She was sitting on the bed sobbing her heart out. By now I had been up for around 27 hours and was dead on my feet.
Calmly and wearily, I approached the nurses’ station in a final effort to establish how much longer we were likely to have to wait. There were four nurses hanging about- three who had been there all night and one fresh face. Through conversation I established that the doctor had lifted her file several hours beforehand but emergencies had arrived in between but that she would be seen “soon.” I commented that these repeated delays were creating the perception in Girl Child’s mind that no one gave a damn about her. Out of curiosity, I enquired how they prioritised patients, bearing in mind that Girl Child had been brought in by ambulance 10 hours earlier with breathing difficulties and chest pains. I was advised that obviously those most severely injured or ill took immediate priority followed by those who had arrived unaccompanied. I checked my understanding of what I’d just been told and asked that if I had left when TBGGB had gone home and left Girl Child on her own would she have been treated quicker?
“Yes” was the shocking answer. By staying by her side and caring for my daughter, I had delayed her receiving medical attention. That broke my heart. As a parent I was being told I should have abandoned my child to get her help quicker. I was beyond disgusted.
The nurse checked to see if she could confirm when we would finally be attended to. A young female doctor sat in an alcove to the side writing up her notes. She commented bluntly that she would be with us in a few minutes. Politely I thanked her and advised her that Girl Child was quite distressed and at the end of her patience and that she was very scared.
At 7.25am, 10 and a half hours after arriving at A&E by ambulance, the doctor came into the room. To my absolute horror, she proceeded to lecture my distraught teenage daughter in the most patronising tone of voice that they had had a very long busy night dealing with many patients who were more ill than she was and that three folk had in fact died. My daughter was sobbing her heart out throughout this lecture. She was now in a lot of pain and very frightened as well as being utterly exhausted. The doctor, in a challenging tone, asked her what she wanted to do. Girl Child sat there sobbing, “I just want to go home.” The response from the doctor, “So you want to go home and me not to treat you.” Girl Child was by now sobbing even harder and repeating “I just want to go home.”
I intervened, struggling to remain calm. How dare this doctor speak to my daughter or any other patient for that matter in such an unprofessional manner? She should be ashamed of herself!
After a cold, blunt discussion about what had been going on with Girl Child since 30th Dec, she fetched her two strong co-codamol to help with the pain then checked her over, declaring that it was most likely just a panic attack but that she would instruct an ECG to check her heart. She advised that if the heart trace was clear we could go home. I quizzed her on the panic attack comment, reminding her that this episode had started while we were relaxing watching a DVD. She was extremely dismissive of my concerns and stated it was a panic attack linked to the costochondritis.
Girl Child broke down again.
A short while later, a lovely nurse came in, helped calm Girl Child down, repeated all the basic observations, ran the heart trace which was thankfully normal, then asked if we’d been left a prescription for pain relief. I advised that we hadn’t and that I didn’t have anything strong enough at home. She said not to worry that she’d sort something out for us. A second moment of refreshing empathy and compassion.
Shortly after 8am we left the hospital.The board advising the current published waiting time was still showing 6 hours.
We had been in A&E for over 11 hours.
I was beyond relieved that they hadn’t found anything seriously wrong with my baby girl. I was beyond disgusted by the whole experience.
Having read a report in our local paper, other people have reported similar experiences that night. Knowing we’re not alone here does not help.
I’m a reasonable person. I don’t expect special or priority treatment for my daughter. We were happy to wait our turn. Ok not so happy about the length of the wait but understanding of the situation.
I was angry at the way I was spoken to when I asked for help and disgusted to be told that she’d need to be out cold on the hospital floor before they’d see her at that point in time.
I was angry at the lack of basic courtesy displayed to everyone around us for all those long hours. A quick “You still ok there? We’ll be with you as soon as we can.” goes a very long way.
I sincerely hope that the old man who lay beside us for all those long hours with no one near him wasn’t one of the three patients who sadly passed away.
I was disgusted to be made to feel that I had delayed my daughter’s treatment because I had done what any caring and concerned person would do and stayed by her side all night.
I was beyond furious by the attitude displayed by the doctor when she finally got around to attending to Girl Child. For a doctor to address anyone in that tone of voice and to use such patronising language is despicable, made worse in this instance by the fact that I had already highlighted how scared and distressed my daughter was.
I’ll not even begin to list the number of breaches of basic nursing protocol or hygiene on a professional practice level that my daughter noted. All I can say is that no wonder bugs spread like wildfire through hospitals if this is typical behaviour!
To the paramedics and ambulance crews – thank you
To the young female police officer who we spent countless hours chatting to – thank you for your company. It kept us both sane all night.
To the auxiliary who displayed simple human kindness towards me – thank you.
To the remaining medical staff whose paths crossed ours – thank you for destroying both my daughter and I’s faith in the emergency medical system.