I watched the BBC news this morning with a heavy heart. Hearing the news that five other hospital trusts are to be investigated in the wake of the inquiry into the abysmal failings at Stafford Hospital. For those of my readers who are not in the UK, the inquiry highlighted far-reaching neglect and abuse at the hospital, leading to a large number of unnecessary deaths between 2005 and 2008.
It struck a personal chord. I don’t know about Stafford Hospital but I do know about how my own mother died in Somerset’s Musgrove Park Hospital. The lack of care she received was quite terrifying.
I received a call from her nursing home to say she had become ill and had been sent to hospital. I went straight over. It was late afternoon and nobody could find her. Yes, the ambulance had dropped her off; yes, she was logged into the system but nobody knew where precisely she was. After an hour of desperately hunting, a doctor
finally pulled me into her room and there was my mother, sunk in a wheelchair, barely conscious.
‘I honestly thought she was going to die out in the corridor,’ said the doctor. ‘I couldn’t get a ward to take her so I brought her in here so at least I could keep an eye on her.’
The doctor said that, out of desperation, she had (knowingly) wrongly diagnosed my mother so that at least she could get onto the one ward which had vacancies. ‘Please complain about this,’ she said, holding my arm as the orderlies came to take her away. ‘Elderly people, in particular, are treated appallingly here. It needs to come out.’
But, to be honest, I had other things on my mind. Like trying to keep my mother alive right there and then, and on through the night. I figured getting onto a ward would make things better but it turned into the most surreal hell. The ward was a Bedlam, people screaming and yelling. At one point the police came in, as one man started slashing a knife around. My mother was petrified and she could barely breathe. I could tell her condition was deteriorating swiftly. Eventually, after several hours, I managed to persuade a junior doctor to come and examine her. He said fluid had built up on her lungs and needed to be drained as a matter of urgency. There was nobody to help so I stood handing him instruments and holding Mum while he performed the procedure right there, on the ward, in her bed. I don’t even think the screens went up. I had to remind him to use antiseptic wash on his hands before he started.
I don’t know how we made it through that night, she and I. I didn’t dare leave her bedside. She was thirsty all the time; she was coughing up thick globbets of muck. If I hadn’t been there I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have made it to morning. The next day she was moved to another ward and I breathed a sigh of relief. Surely it would be better here? But no. People weren’t screaming here but they were groaning and they were pushing bells which weren’t answered. On this ward, the nurses’ station was separate, outside the main ward. And it was very much a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. On the news today, it was suggested that hospitals are understaffed and that nurses simply can’t give their patients the level of care they need. Well, sorry, but it didn’t look that way from where I was sitting. I stayed with Mum for three days and nights solidly because I couldn’t trust the nurses to keep her hydrated and to prevent her from choking on the muck from her lungs. Eventually my sister was able to come down from London with some of her family and we were able to take turns in watching her, in trying to get her to eat, in giving her sips of water, freshening her up, keeping her breathing apparatus over her face.
It wasn’t me being paranoid. In the bed next to Mum another family kept vigil over their mother – just like us, they didn’t dare leave her alone. They watered and fed and watched her. Between us we tried to help other people on the ward too – when bells repeatedly went unanswered. Some of the patients clearly had dementia – they rang the bell a lot because they became confused and frightened. And that, in turn, confused and frightened the other patients.
Getting information out of staff was nigh-on impossible. Everyone was perfectly pleasant, just not remotely involved somehow. Eventually Mum died, on that ward.
Why didn’t I complain? I suppose because my mother had just died, and I was contending with guilt as well as grief. I couldn’t quite let my mind dwell on what had happened. I couldn't quite believe what had happened. I knew, logically, that there hadn’t been anything else I could have done but even so, I felt lacking. Doubtless she would have died anyhow – her lungs had developed a thick carapace around them – but I hated that she had suffered more than necessary because of lack of good nursing care.
Also, I guess, we don't like to complain about the NHS. It's free, we think: we should be grateful for what we've got. And, yes, the NHS does do wonderful things and there are wonderful people in it, including amazing and dedicated nurses. And not all departments and wards are equal. My family has had good treatment at Musgrove. But, on this occasion, the hospital, the NHS, and the nurses in particular, let us - and Mum - down. And there was no way of putting it right.
I should have complained. I should have made a fuss.