Comment: ‘My Whittington Hospital nightmare’

Freelance journalist Sarah Cope is member of Camden Green Party and lives in Highgate. She describes her stay at the Whittington Hospital to have keyhole surgery to remove her gallbladder, which left her shocked at declining services.

Like many north Londoners, I have marched to save the Whittington several times. I have attended meetings, and spoken out about planned bed closures, endless reorganisations and staff shortages. Last week, I attended the hospital as a patient for day surgery; my gallbladder was removed using keyhole surgery.

We have all read stories about the crisis the NHS is in; government cuts, and moves to outsourcing and privatisation are having negative consequences for patients. However, nothing prepared me for how much the Whittington had declined since I was last there in 2011.

The first thing to mention was the filthy state of the hospital. When I arrived at 7.30am, I saw most, if not all, the hospital workers entering completely ignoring the very prominent hand sanitising stations; I seemed to be the only person using them. I thought that perhaps the workers would be cleaning their hands when they reached their areas of work, and dismissed my concerns. But, as the day wore on, I saw more alarming signs. A bin on the day treatment ward, metres from where people lay recovering, was overflowing – will a full bag of rubbish on top.

A nurse, attending one of my dressings, asked my partner to help, without first asking her to wash her hands, despite her just having arrived. Another nurse, having dropped the disposable peak flow mouthpiece on the floor, looked at it for a moment and then fixed it to the machine and offered it to me to put in my mouth. A toilet was so caked in excrement at one point that I felt obliged to find an alternative one. There was no soap in a hand dispenser... next to a big sign about how important it was to wash one’s hands.

Apart from the issue of hygiene, there was clearly low, nay no, morale amongst staff. I do not want to criticise the staff; low paid, working long hours, mismanaged and undervalued, I am in awe of nurses. There was clearly tension between nurses and their superiors; at one point, after being criticised, I think by a doctor, one nurse walked away muttering “how stupid do you think I am? God help us...” It is not reassuring for patients to hear this sort of altercation.

One issue we’ve heard much about in terms of the Whittington is the planned bed closures, and the allied adverse effects on healthcare outcomes. Last year, in an apparent u-turn, the board stated that there would be no closures. However, they also said, ‘changes to wards and beds will still happen... these are dependent on services continuing to be commissioned at the Whittington Hospital’.

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When I was in so much pain that I fainted at one point, and when one of my incisions kept seeping through the dressing, it was reluctantly suggested that I stay overnight. The nurse in charge of my care explained that there were no beds and they would need to get rid of someone else to make way for me. I waited for hours, in pain and afraid, but also angry that our NHS had deteriorated so much.

When I was finally taken to Coyle ward, the nurse who took me there struggled for some time to find a nurse to hand me over to. “Is there a nurse on the ward?” she incredulously asked out loud, walking from bay to bay. Several emergency response alarms were constantly going off, as people buzzed in vain for attendance. Later, an elderly woman got out of her bed and, holding onto a wall, asked my partner and I to help her find a nurse. She was clearly desperate.

Another woman was informed that she could go home that night, but they wouldn’t be able to give her any pain medication to take home, as they had run out.

I myself kept asking for pain medication, and was eventually given some. It was shortly after that point that I decided to go home. I explained to the nurses that I felt it was the safer option, and that the hospital was in meltdown. They tacitly agreed.

The next day we procured some painkillers through the out-of-hours service, which was very efficient. When my partner explained our experiences, a doctor replied “well, you should have had a better experience than that, but I’m not surprised to hear about it.”

What I have described above is scandalous – we should be outraged. I never once believed that having fewer beds and more ‘ambulatory care’ was anything other than a cost-cutting measure, and my experience, and clearly that of others, has sadly proved that.

One hears of winter bed crises; one wonders if they can be so short of beds in September, how much worse it can get, and how may lives that will cost?