Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Mid Staffs Public Inquiry and my mother


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.  


13 comments:

the veg artist said...

I've never seen anything as bad as that, but during my last spell in hospital around fifteen years ago, it was painfully obvious that the 'degree' nurses felt that many jobs were beneath them. It was a surgical ward, and we were able to help each other, but it was a sad comparison to what I remember from years ago when a vigilant Ward Sister saved me from an incompetent Doctor.

Narrowboat Wife said...

I cried reading this. I don't know when your mum died but perhaps you could still make a complaint? I used to work in NHS administration. Often people can't complain when they are consumed by grief; it takes time before you feel you can do it. But complaints can change policies and budgets...

Exmoorjane said...

@the veg artist - Yes, the contrast with how things were in the past is quite shocking. And I have friends who were in nursing who say exactly the same. Glad that Ward Sister was on the ball.

@Narrowboat Wife - nooo, don't cry. It was several years ago now and, no, I won't complain now. I couldn't state exact stuff and, tbh as I didn't keep records. Plus I don't really want to dredge it all up in my mind again. Although I do feel a bit bad about it as I agree that complaints can change policies - that was what the doctor was saying when she urged me to voice my complaint.

Ashen said...

A heartbreaking story. It's a rare hospital management that insists on putting care before the machinations of its greedy efficiency culture, which actually works against itself because it dis-empowers doctors, nurses and all hospital staff, eats the soul out of them.

Anne Wareham said...

This is terrifying and it's not going to be mended easily. I was thinking of this kind of thing last night, and yet how I still think of calling an ambulance with the idea that it's a lifeline to safety.
No more. (though round here you'd be lucky to get an ambulance anyway..)

Marianne said...

Things have got to change! I had a similar experience last winter when my lovely mum was taken into the very expensive, spanking new, barely finished local hospital with acute pneumonia.
For all the wonderful equipment, ensuite shower rooms and personal cubicles, the care was derisory and consisted of ticking boxes and mainlining her with antibiotics - the only useful thing they did.
We arrived to find her toying with food she wasn't able to eat and in the early stages of dehydration. The nurse who helped her stagger to the loo was sharp and unsympathetic.
We stayed and did everything for her until she was out of danger, because no-one else would have done the simple things she needed to make her comfortable. We fought her corner, she survived for while longer. But what about those who have no-one to fight for them?

Anonymous said...

Three of my friends have had similar experiences with elderly parents recently - particularly with making sure they are being fed and watered, pretty crucial, basic stuff. Even when my grandmother died in hospital ten years ago we had to insist that other patients on her ward were cleaned up as they were left for many hours .... not sure what exactly has gone wrong and how, but it needs fixing. So sorry you had such an awful time with your mum xx

DD's Diary said...

ps that anonymous was me!

HER ON THE HILL said...

Shocking and extraordinarily traumatic. Heart going out to you for what you (and your poor Mother)had to go through. Things HAVE to change. This is like Third World stuff in a supposedly rich, civilised, democratic and enlightened country.
xxx

VP said...

God, how apalling.

I'm worried it's not just the hospitals though.

My mum (nowhere near as ill as yours was) is being cared for at home. She's recently been ill in bed. Her carers make her food and drink, but she's too weak to feed herself and they don't have the time in their schedule to help her. As it's a different carer going in each time, no-one had noticed she'd not eaten or drank over several days.

Her neighbour realised and made sure she ate something. I dread to think what would have happened if she hadn't. I live 80 miles away and hadn't been told she was ill...

And what about the people who don't have families to keep vigil, or a neighbour or friend kind enough to fill the gap...

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

Oh God Jane. I remember when your mother died. No wonder you were not able to complain. It is so patchy though, the NHS. My father in law received fabulous nursing care in a hospital which has since been closed down in a drive for savings. The worst care I have seen recently was in a large teaching hospital in Bristol where my brother was. The doctors were good. The nurses were not. I am glad you and your sister were able to be there for your mother.

Sharon said...

I know you say we don't like to complain about the NHS because its free but we do pay for it with our NI contributions. My mum's last days were awful - she was in one ward getting better or so we thought and then had a seizure in the night but no one thought to contact us. She was moved to another ward and no one knew where she was. Then, without me being there, they told her she was dying and there was nothing more they could do for her and then thought to contact me at work and say they had given her bad news and she was upset and it may be a good idea if I went to see her. I asked what they had told her but they said they couldn't tell me over the phone grrrrrr. Her ward was a geriatric one with patients with dementia and strokes and there was no one to help them eat at meal times so my daughter used to end up helping others whilst we visited mum. Terrible terrible treatment of our elderly people. And don't get me started on about the convalescent home she went to when she broke her hip - left laying in her own urine for hours. Sorry for the rant!

rachel said...

So much in this sad, sad post.... I could talk about my mother's hours of total neglect on an emergency admissions ward in a prestigious teaching hospital in the North East, where she, ill and shocked after a fall, spent more time looking after a wandering fellow-patient with dementia than looking after herself. I took her home after watching another horrified daughter who dared to complain being loudly and publicly humiliated by a nursing sister. And no, I didn't complain either; I couldn't quite believe that I would be listened to. But, oh, how I wish I had!

It seems to be the elderly who suffer most in our hospitals; I had superb service from Musgrove, but then I was being investigated for a breast lump in a specialist clinic, not as a helpless elderly inpatient too sick to make a fuss. I welcome the current media attention being paid to whistleblowers, and hope it will help to make the changes we so urgently need.