What it's really like to spend a day and night in our public service's A&E

Trolleys, waiting times and communication, just how bad is our hospital care?

Over the last few weeks, my other half, Mick, has been suffering with headaches. They weren't always all that bad but intermittently consisted of sharp pain which would make him grab his forehead and put his hand up in protest that he just wasn't able to continue the conversation at that moment. I had spent a number of weeks trying to persuade him to go to a doctor, that he couldn't consistently have a headache for that long and that he possibly needed to take something for migraine.
 
On Friday, we went along to our local GP, like is always suggested by those in our health service. Don't clog up the waiting rooms for other patients who are in need of care, they say, go see your local GP. Well, our local GP couldn't quite figure out what the issue was and due to the fact that the issue centred around the head and/or brain, we were given a referral letter and told to go straight to the hospital and not to delay.
 
We were obviously quite concerned that we had been told to immediately go along to the hospital. What couldn't wait until Monday for a scan or further tests? However, I had paid a visit to the hospital not too long before for a separate issue so we were aware what we may be in for. We packed a bag filled with magazines and a couple of treats and set off for the A&E ward in St James's Hospital.
 
As you may know, James's is one of the busiest hospitals in Dublin. Although often hailed as having one of the lowest waiting times in A&E, it takes in quite a number of patients due to its location. While waiting in A&E yesterday, we counted about seven emergency cases which were admitted to the hospital, which pushed down the waiting times for everyone who was in the waiting room. That's understandable, some people need more urgent care than others.
 
When we first arrived in the Accident and Emergency section at about 1pm, we were genuinely shocked at how small the room in the waiting area is. There were possibly about 30 seats in a dingy, poorly lit room that felt like it was built in another century. We were seen pretty quickly by a nurse who determined that yes, we were in the right place and if there were ever any complaints with the head, you should see a doctor immediately. She had to pass the card on to a doctor who would see us when we were called.
 
I work as a journalist, I was aware how long it would be for waiting times in hospitals but I couldn't get over how long we were actually waiting and I can guarantee you, we were seen a lot faster than some of the people that day. It was depressing in there. There was no food except a couple of vending machines at the back stocking exactly what you imagine shouldn't be stocked in a hospital waiting room, chocolate, crisps and soft drinks. There was a water machine.
 
At one stage during the day, an excessively drunk man sat beside me and then decided he was going to sprawl across the chairs and go asleep. I called a security guard who asked him had he checked in (he had not) and that he would have to speak to somebody in reception. He then tried to go to sleep on my shoulder. We moved to the other side of the waiting room. He wasn't the only one. Earlier that day another gentleman who was clearly distressed entered the waiting room drunk, fell over and then tried to blame one of the security guards because he hit his head. They never touched him. I can only imagine what conditions the staff work in at weekends.
 
During our time in the waiting room, as is the Irish way, we made friends with a number of people in our surroundings. There was an elderly woman sitting next to me with her daughter, a young mother behind us who was complaining with chest pains and a man who was having severe difficulty breathing. He had a nebulizer which probably meant he could control his breathing but he was elderly and finding it very difficult to make his way to the bathroom. He was on his own.
 
Due to the emergencies, we were pushed down the list and finally at about 7pm, we were told that they would have to do a roll call and re-assess everyone on the floor individually again. The first woman on the list had been waiting to see a doctor since 12.57pm. When they called out the names, Mick wasn't on the list. We questioned what had happened and were told, his card must be with a doctor, he will see you shortly. Shortly turned out to be just under another hour. It was understandable, there were very sick people being admitted before us.
 
When we were called in, we walked past a number of people on trolleys, at least two I could count were quite elderly. We were brought into a room where Mick was examined. We can't say enough how excellent the doctor was, his was a vocation. We saw him speaking to a number of patients over the day, even checking back in with a patient just before he left to make sure she was alright. 
 
After the initial assessment, we were sent to another waiting room where we would remain until 1.30am. We were called in twice more, once for a scan to make sure everything was alright and then again to be told that we would have to be admitted to the hospital for the entire weekend. During this second meeting, we were criticised for presenting at a hospital on a Friday and should have understood that there weren't many services for this particular scan at the weekend. The options we were given were hazy, we couldn't quite understand why we had to stay in the hospital for the weekend to await the scan. We were eventually told that if we discharged out of the system, we wouldn't be able to book this scan, that it would take much longer as an outpatient and so, we were told to wait.
 
And we waited again. The waiting room itself had emptied out. There was one woman there who was with an older man on a trolley just inside the door. And us. We were sitting on chairs. I went to check whether Mick would be admitted and was told that they we were working through other patients care and would get to us all in good time. In fact, this particular woman was the only one who had been dismissive of us, most of the staff had tried to help in some way. But she was under pressure, with very little staff around her (I saw one other doctor and one nurse but I'm not sure if there were any more). 
 
There was no catering anywhere around us. I went to the main part of the hospital at 21.45 and everything was shut. Everything. Not one shop was open, well none that I could find. I went out to the main road to try to find a shop, panicking that I wouldn't make it back in time for when my partner went in for CT scan. There was a man on a drip near us who complained that he was starving. There was an old lady who bought crisps out of the vending machine because she was so hungry. There was a pregnant woman in the main waiting room for the same amount of time as us who I saw eating an apple at one stage. She was with her partner, I don't know if she had anything else but she was pregnant! Surely she should have had access to something warm to eat.
 
We talked over what to do about the scan and we were so hungry and so tired that we just wanted to go home, particularly Mick who had a very stressful day and just wanted to go back to his own bed. Anywhere was better than that chair. We went to the desk and asked to be discharged. We were told everyone had been waiting for quite a while and while we understood that, we just wanted to leave. The doctor only recommended that we stay but wasn't too concerned that we left so it seemed alright.
 
On the way out the door, we passed by a woman who was with her mother for most of the day. She was sitting beside her trolley while her mother was trying to sleep in the hall. There were three trolleys inside the door. I walked around to the other hall and couldn't believe it, there were trolleys on the aisles outside rooms, people trying to sleep, waiting.
 
We passed the waiting room on the way out. The young mother was gone but the elderly lady just got called as we were walking out the door. We spoke briefly to her daughter, she said they had been waiting for hours. The elderly gentleman who couldn't breathe walked past us at one stage on the way out, still having difficulty breathing, still on his own.
 
We know the hospitals are underfunded and understaffed. We know that doctors and nurses are working in these conditions to the very best of their ability, they have a very difficult job to do and try their hardest to provide the best care. This is almost out of their control but we have ask of those in control of our health service, an elderly lady sitting in a blue seat for 12 hours in a dingy dimly lit room with no real food? What kind of care is that providing? I can almost guarantee that no one in there was wondering about how they were voting, they just wanted to see a doctor.
 
We checked into a private hospital the following morning. That's a real indictment of the health care system, that people would be willing to spend their hard earned cash just to be able to see a doctor... within seven hours.

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