HOLMSEY: The NHS: frustrating and shambolic, but life-saving

By IW Observer.co.uk Mar 28, 2022
Medical doctor making ECG test in hospital. Medical Concept

As the horrific assault on Ukraine has been unfolding, I’ve been a bit distracted, not totally keeping up with the latest devastating events. I do have a good excuse; four weeks ago, in the early hours of a Saturday morning, a much-loved older family member was admitted by ambulance to St Mary’s.  He was clearly unwell and, as the night passed, they diagnosed a problem with his waterworks and gave him some antibiotics; by lunchtime on Saturday I was able to collect him. He seemed a bit unsteady on his feet and was a little confused and dishevelled, but of course he’d been up all night!

Urinary infections do often cause confusion, although normally he’s as fit as I am and doesn’t have any trouble walking, driving or generally going about his daily life. I dropped him back home and helped settle him in, saying I’d return on Sunday – to see how the prescribed antibiotics were working. Unfortunately, by the time I got back, just 24 hours later, he had rapidly deteriorated, he was agitated, fiddling with objects and unable to communicate, so we called 111 again.

Unbelievably, they answer calls with an automated voice informing you how busy they are. After trying to convince you to hang up, they suggest you go on-line to solve your medical crisis, but – most incredibly – say you should do this ‘if you’re over 5’. Sorry! What 5-year-old calls 111 for their urgent medical episode, let alone switches to a computer when prompted?  Who are these amazing children, and what idiot wrote that ridiculous script?  

Within 30 minutes, we were delighted to see the paramedics arrive; they got the patient prepared and took him back to St Mary’s, who spent the next 48 hours trying to work out what was actually wrong with him. Weekends in hospitals always make me nervous; whatever they say, our NHS isn’t a seven-day-a-week health service.  

This time, A&E decided to do a CT scan; in case he’d had a stroke, the symptoms were quite similar, and we awaited the results, which were inconclusive. At my age, I’ve got used to the NHS not producing miracles; after all, diagnosing the many and various ailments that afflict humans is a highly complex business. Professionally, I have known families say their loved one was very sick in hospital for weeks without a diagnosis.  

After four days of head scratching and anxiety, we were blessed with a small miracle; the intervention of my sister, who luckily happens to be an experienced stroke and rehabilitation nurse. She was able to speak knowledgably to a wonderful Dr Francis, who discussed the medical possibilities in fairly technical terms at great length. A lumber puncture was ordered and, finally, that produced a diagnosis, encephalitis, so at last some treatment commenced. By now ‘the patient’ was gravely ill; death was a distinct possibility.  

Thankfully, the Doctor further agreed with my sister’s helpful suggestion that ITU was the best place to care for him. He’s been there in ITU for four weeks now, making slow progress, but he’s alive and definitely seems to be getting better.

The cost to the taxpayer of an intensive care bed is around £1,500 per day, so we’re over £50,000 and counting. As ever, my experience of our health service is mixed, but it’s evident the staff working in ITU are the best of it. Their care is extraordinary, and I thank them for it from the bottom of my heart.  If you can’t get a doctor’s appointment – I never can – or you’ve waited hours in A&E, the NHS seems frustrating and even shambolic, but if you’re really, really ill, and you know how to communicate, it can still be incredible too.