The British nursing heroine Florence Nightingale, who was a gifted mathematician and statistician, proved that patients in London hospitals died at a rate of 90% while the sick that remained at home died at a rate of 60%. An interesting statistic in times when many people fear having to arrive at an accident and emergency unit for even the most rudimentary treatments.
Everyone should get to ‘do the trolley’. I arrived at Tallaght Hospital in an ambulance with no shock absorbers, having survived the rattle and hum drive from Naas to West Dublin. Apparently, once the shock absorbers go, the official position is not to replace them. The ambulance itself was fifteen years old.
It doesn’t matter why I had to be brought to hospital by ambulance. Let’s just say my throat was bleeding after a tonsillectomy and I was in no position to talk as the Middle Eastern doctor peered into my mouth. What matters is what I saw, just as thousands of people have done who experience a stint on a hospital trolley, or being treated in a corridor over a period of days. A woman I know says her father spent a few days in a chair in the Mater while waiting for a bed. So, in comparison, a trolley is relatively luxurious.
To be honest, I’d expected an all-out battle of sorts, even though it was a Monday night and not the notorious weekend Booze, Batter and Bawl shift, but despite the trolleys and the lack of space, there was order, order everywhere. The nursing and medical staff are quietly heroic. I half expected Alan Alda to come storming urgently through the flap of a military tent, just like in the television series China Beach, but no, this was Dublin and not Vietnam, and medically speaking all was calm. Somehow, you do get diagnosed and treated amidst the clutter of screens, trays on wheels and monitoring equipment that have to be shoved around the working space as staff try to ensure some privacy for those in need of it. This, to me, is miraculous. Of course it begs the question about the general quality of hospital medical practice if – as I observed – portions of working time are fragmented into continually re-organising physical space for new patients in very cramped conditions. Surely it’s difficult for nurses and doctors to do the job properly, at least some of the time?
We were rivetted, of course, by the inevitable gouger charging down the corridor, threatening the nurses and security staff that he’d smash their f***ing faces in if they so much as laid a hand on him. This young tulip was dragging two children along to have them say good-night to a man I took to be their father.
During the interlude, the corridor went deathly quiet. Nurses hovered. We were expecting action, fists, blood and guts. It was as if a walking explosive had rolled in, unpredictable in its quick, darting movements. Violence breeds violence and although in no position to do so, I longed to reach out and grab the boy-man by the throat and squeeze hard. A Lithuanian security woman immediately radioed for help from her companions, but by then the young man was heading away again, the veins bulging in his neck as he muttered imprecations at the ‘scumbag foreigners who aren’t even from here for f***’s sake’. He returned a second time later on, still ranting and raving, making foul threats to the staff, calling them names and generally abusing them.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to hear this on a regular basis. What does it do to the soul of a person to hear themselves racially abused, or simply abused because they are Irish nurses? One thing’s for sure. Some of these motormouths wouldn’t dare square up like that to men, especially men who were bigger than they. But the women receive automatic abuse, for all the usual historical and physiological reasons: they are usually smaller, female and foreign. Easy target.
In the meantime, myself and a younger woman were put on trolleys in a corridor off a corridor, close to the Acute Accident Unit. I was glad I wasn’t actually in any pain, because every time the door from that unit opened, it slammed into the back of my trolley and staff then had to squeeze their way between the two of us.
The night was long. But miraculously, things quietened down. Patients on trolleys do fall asleep. It is possible to drift off for periods once the lights are dimmed. The young woman beside me was certainly pushing out the zzzs, softly, mouth open, propped up with her iPod earphones plugged in. It’s not ideal, but you sleep in the hope that the next day will bring a bed. You want to black out, hurry time towards the dawn.
The Philipino and South Indian nurses were on their feet all night. They work hard, these healers who also have to clear up so much detritus and human waste of one kind or another. As they’re barrelling the penicillin into the canula on your arms, you wonder how the heck they get so much right, and how incredible it is that there are people who really want to heal the sick professionally in today’s economically gluttonousIreland, in a land which offers limited access in emergency situations.
The spirit of Florrie Nightingale wasn’t so far away, I mused in the dim corridor, as a nurse peeped through the screen to check that all was well with me and my companion. It might not be the Crimean War, but there’s a battle for access raging full force in our society, and greed is at the back of it, an unwillingness on the part of our government to release the funds, get the building done and stop fobbing the population off with mealy-mouthed excuses.
Right now, while the former economic gurus are sweating it out daily, some in more comfort than others, and the mood of the country is downright ugly, I don’t believe any of our political parties is up to the business of reforming the health service. They haven’t got the moral courage and they’re all on Plan E.