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Have our nurses had the kindness trained out of them?

After spending a traumatic night in hospital, I'm left wondering what happened to compassionate care

"The A&E ward was full apparently although there can’t have been more than eight other patients."
"The A&E ward was full apparently although there can’t have been more than eight other patients." Credit: tirc83/Getty

I nearly died last week. At least it felt that way. The GP prescribed some antibiotics over the phone and I took one after dinner while we were watching TV. How long before I realised? Maybe 15 minutes. A sudden awareness that something was desperately, catastrophically wrong. I managed to scrabble upstairs and took a Piriton tablet. Thank God for instinct. Himself, somewhat bemused, had followed me. “Alli, what is it? Tell me what it is?”

I couldn’t tell him. A constriction in my chest and throat, pins and needles in hands and feet, a powerful need to expel whatever demon had taken up rude residence in my body. I sat on the loo and vomited nothing.

“Call an ambulance. Please call an ambulance!” I was shouting but I could barely hear myself; the voice was muffled, far away.   

Himself doesn’t like to bother people unnecessarily. He dialled 111 and had an exceedingly polite conversation with the person on the other end. To my mind this patient exchange did not quite capture the urgency of the situation.

“Is the pain in your chest on the left or right?” The questions from the 111 operator kept coming and Himself passed them on. “Are her airways constricted?”

Just a bit!

“Sorry, she’s having trouble speaking.”

I couldn’t bear those damn fool questions. Didn’t they know I was dying?  “So ill,” I groaned. “So ill. Hospital. Need go to hospital.”

When the paramedics arrived, I was alternating between the loo and crouching on all fours on the bathroom floor, a position I last assumed during labour. Some animal instinct, perhaps, to tether yourself to the earth. They were so lovely, those young paramedics. A bearded guy saying my name, telling me I was doing really well, a pretty woman with coiled blond plaits. I thought of Heidi, a book I loved as a child. “Don’t worry,” she said, gesturing at the loo, the sprawling, naked humiliation of it all, “we’ve seen far worse.”

I imagined what horrors those young eyes had seen. They put suckers on my chest and wired me up to a small machine. “Doesn’t look like you’ve had a heart attack, Allison,” the man soothed, “Can’t be 100 per cent sure. I’m thinking more a severe allergic reaction. Do you think you can make it down the stairs if we support you?”

“Gffno.” I didn’t want to leave that floor, its coolness and solidity. If I crouched there, eyes tight shut, the demon would go away.

He stuck a needle in me.  “What is it you do, Allison?”

I made my mouth form the word. “Writer.”

“Are you writing a book now?’

“Yes.”

“Can we be in it?”

“Yes.” They both laughed and it was the best sound I ever heard.

That injection brought me back to the surface of myself. The devil took his claws out of my chest.  

At the hospital I started to feel a bit better, but the care got worse. No one introduced themselves or even asked my name. I was left like a side of meat on a trolley in a store cupboard for seven hours. The A&E ward was full apparently although there can’t have been more than eight other patients.  When I asked a nurse if I could have a pillow she said they didn’t have any. Reluctantly, she produced a piece of folded cloth, the thickness of two tea towels to put under my head. 

At 2.30am, I felt the symptoms start to come back, as the paramedic had warned they might. I pressed the buzzer and asked a nurse for some antihistamine. “The doctor says you can’t have any meds until she’s seen you.”  I’d been there for four and a half hours. I insisted. Loudly, tearfully, I insisted. Anything, but not that demon again.

Under the sleep-killing fluorescent light, with staff coming in and out of my cupboard to get supplies, I remembered what a friend who’d had a stroke and been brought to the same hospital had said: “The nurses have had kindness trained out of them.”

That’s exactly what it felt like. With no visitors allowed because of the virus, you are on your own.

At 4.30am, the doctor finally came. “Thank you for your patience,” she said. Is that what they teach them to say to the neglected and distressed? Weakly, I gestured around the store room where I had now spent more than seven hours on a trolley. “It’s not ideal,” the doctor conceded.

When I got home I fell into Himself’s arms and wept. For the unkindness of nurses who don’t even bother to ask your name. For all the scared people who are treated like that. For anaphylactic shock and the terrible fragility of being mortal.

Getting into the bath, I realised I still had the suction pads on me, sticky blue mementos of a dramatic night. Peeling them off I remembered, with a surge of gratitude my two rescuers. Their sturdy boots, their wonderful competence, their healing laughter. “You’re doing really well, Allison.” (I wasn’t.)  I’m putting you in the novel, Jamie and Alana. Thank you, thank you with all my heart.