I remember watching the news during lockdown. Seeing the rows of ambulances stuck in hospital carparks, nowhere to put the patients inside. My heart went out to those people. I couldn’t imagine how they felt. To be taken to a hospital where you should feel safe, secure, and not being able to gain entry for hours.
I never dreamt that this was still going on. That over two years later I’d be the one stuck in an ambulance overnight with nowhere to go.
Firstly, I’m a notoriously private person but I feel it’s important to share my experience because, naively, I’d assumed this problem was a Covid one and didn’t happen anymore. Yes, I’d heard there are sometimes delays responding to emergency calls but I’d thought (no judgement please) this was because of staff shortages, lack of funds, all of the ambulances being out on calls. Not… this.
I was away for the weekend. Having a really nice time, until suddenly I wasn’t. Something was wrong. Very wrong. My husband called 999, it was the first time we’d experienced doing this. The operator was the calm we needed. Professional. Assured us that an ambulance would be with me as soon as it could.
We waited. And waited. And waited.
In hindsight, we should have made our own way to the hospital (remember, no judgement). But we were sure the ambulance would come any minute. Knew I needed medical care. We were miles from home and panicking.
After approximately 3 hours a first responder attended. We sat in our cramped holiday accommodation. He explained he lived minutes down the road but had only just got the call. He worked voluntarily and shockingly had paid £2000 for his own kit so he could do so. He said there was a big backlog. He told us where the nearest A & E was, an hour away, and then called the control centre and said my husband could drive me there. They ran through my current symptoms and strongly advised against it. Wanted him to stay with me so he could save my life if needs be.
And so we waited. And waited. And waited.
Around 3 hours later the ambulance turned up. The paramedics gave me a quick check over and said they wanted to get me to hospital straight away. They were super calm and so friendly and I’m eternally grateful to them.
When we got to the hospital around midnight, the carpark was full of ambulances containing patients. I’m not sure how many, I heard the figure 28 mentioned by another paramedic outside. It was explained to me we would have to wait.
I was cold, exhausted, scared. In pain. I couldn’t help thinking of the other occupants in the other ambulances. How did they feel? Their families? I was getting a string of frantic texts from my husband who had been told he wasn’t allowed to come to the hospital (Covid rules). I told him to try and get some sleep. It was going to be a long night. And it was, broken up at 2am by having to move ambulances in the frigid night air as my crew had finished their shift (which btw is often in excess of 12 hours).
I chatted with all 4 paramedics involved in my care. I had many questions about the situation. The paramedics explained that this was usual for their hospital. That they knew this was also standard in other areas. That it’s set to get worse with the onset of winter, a new strain of flu on the horizon. An expected increase in Covid.
I apologised to them over and over. I couldn’t, still can’t, get my head around that they spend between 2-4 years training for the career they went into to save lives, help people, make a difference, and much of their shift is spent sitting in a car park. Unused. Undervalued. Although they were all positive people, morale was understandably low. I also felt horribly guilty that while the ambulances were stuck, there were people out there desperately needing them. Those, like me, who had called 999, reassured help was on the way. These lovely, experts receiving abuse when they do turn up on jobs sometimes because of the long wait which is completely out of their hands.
I think, that’s one of the worst things for me. Despite my medical history I’ve tried to remain optimistic, always believing that if my life was in danger I could call for help and help would come in time. I’ve now lost that sense of safety. The faith I had in our NHS. The future now more uncertain.
The night passed slowly. The paramedics keeping my mind off of my situation. We talked about everything from going into space, to the challenges I am facing with the plot of a time travel book I’d begun. The magnitude of the multiverse book I want to write. Copies of my latest thriller were ordered from Amazon (every cloud!)
It must have been approaching 6am when I was moved into the hospital. Another couple of hours after that when I saw a doctor. And then came more waiting for tests, results. Being wheeled around the hospital, left alone in waiting areas, in corridors. Dizzy from an entirely sleepless night. Lack of food.
Other patients were polite to staff (who were wonderful and trying their best), I was pleased to see this and can imagine it isn’t always the case. But faces were etched with pain, with despair. People sitting on the floor because all the chairs were full, head in hands, sometimes crying (and this was me 14 hours in…). Symptoms were discussed between doctor/patient/nurse in the waiting rooms, perhaps to save time and perhaps because there were no private areas. The lack of privacy, dignity not being addressed because everyone had the same end goal. Doctors to discharge patients, patients desperate to go home.
It was approximately 16 hours later that I was discharged. The doctor giving me paperwork to pass on to my consultant who I’m scheduled to see. Me, still despairing because although I’d been having urgent tests (appointments for which have still taken months and I’m still waiting for some) my follow up appointment to discuss results is next April.
So what’s the answer?
Genuinely I don’t know if our beloved NHS is fixable. Not without a huge injection of cash at the very least. It’s easy to sit at home and rage and ‘if I were the Prime Minster I’d get the money from…’ without understanding the ins and outs but… something, surely?
I haven’t seen any evidence this government cares enough to try.
So what do we do?
My eldest son has private healthcare through his employer and I’m very grateful he does. Private healthcare is something I’ve looked into but no one will cover my pre-existing medical conditions and I didn’t even get as far as a quote. It will be unobtainable for many because of finances and medical history.
My middle child already can’t makes ends meet with the steep increase in everything. He’s had such a rough deal already. Mountainous student debt accumulated during a practical degree in filmmaking. The university not being able to deliver anything they promised due to Covid/lockdowns. Graduating but without any practical experience, a portfolio, work experience placements. The university not refunding any of the fees although we asked and appealed, the government not putting any measures in place (and you can watch my chat with Kai about the challenges students face here).
If you’re UK based you already know of the current hardships. The ripples of fear. The fruitless longing for our MPs to spend some time living on benefits, caring for sick relatives, grappling with childcare, living on a low (normal) wage. To gain an understanding of the lives of ordinary people and then, perhaps to show some empathy, compassion. We need to add spending the entire night in the back of an ambulance to that list.
Perhaps then something might change. But, of course, this is unlikely to happen. So how can we instil a much needed change? Is there anything the public can do? I’m asking this as a genuine question.
I was a mindfulness teacher within mental health, before I was a fulltime author, I always try and look for the positives but I’ve struggled to think of a positive way to end this post, so I’ll finish up with Cyril.
After I’d been discharged I had an hours wait for my lift to arrive and I got chatting to a man in his 80s who told me he didn’t often get to talk to anyone. He’d lost his wife 5 years previously – his one true love – and it was an absolutely pleasure to listen to him talk about her.
Sitting on the bench, in the sun, bonding with a stranger. A lovely end to a traumatic couple of days.
I am so sorry you had to go through this. You must have been terrified. I wish I had a positive answer to give you. I haven’t been through it , not the ambulance wait, but I am spending all the money I had hoped to leave to my family going down the private route, queue jumping, which I feel guilty about.
Your piece was so vivid it needs to be told more widely – if you are now well enough to tell it. We’ve all heard about it of course but probably not from the position of the patient – and not from the paramedics who can’t get on with the job they signed up for.
Oh you absolutely shouldn’t feel guilty about that! I’m sure your family would want you to spend your money on your health. Hope you get the right care.
How absolutely awful and terrifying that must have been for you, Louise, and I’m so sorry it happened to you. A few years ago, my daughter waited an hour and a half for an ambulance after an ‘accident’ between her bicylcle and a car. That was bad enough but pales into insignificance compared to your experience.
I really don’t know what the answer is – well I do, but our UK governments of recent times have shown themselves quite unwilling to impose the taxes necessary to fund a modern health service, ie a ring-fenced health tax based on income, to pay for more doctors’ training, and more associated workers.
You have my sympathy and my good wishes. I do hope you’re going to be OK now.
Thanks Drew. It all feels rather helpless right now. That must have been very frightening for your daughter.
There’s so much to unpick in all that, Louise. We’ve had a lot of experience of the NHS over the last couple of years – including resorting to paying for surgery on one occasion. And we’re still on a waiting list for another operation, though when that’ll happen is anyone’s guess – it took them a year just to come up with a diagnosis. The NHS is in a shocking state, and something does need to be done about it – but I really can’t see the current government even making a start on it. They have other priorities.
So sorry you’ve had to go through all this. Would love to offer up words of encouragement, but I suspect they’ll seem empty.
Do take care of yourself, and give yourself priority. We all want more books from you, but you are more important.
Thanks Graeme. Much appreciated x
It’s absolutely terrifying. I dread me or my family getting ill. Having said that, I think this pre-dates Covid. In 2016 I was very unwell and called 999 but was told I wasn’t poorly enough for an ambulance, presumably because they were in short supply. I actually had an undiagnosed infection in my brain! That has really put me off having to call again. My husband had to use 111 on Saturday. The whole process needs streamlining – he spoke to someone to go through the questions, was told a clinician would call within 2 hours. They called within 4 and then said he needed to go to hospital to see the out of hours. They made him an appointment but he still had to triaged and wait over an hour to be seen. The triage conversation was just about whether he’d done a Covid test – surely this could have been said on the phone?! So it took most of the day but he did get antibiotics. We’re also not allowed to call our surgery now, everything must go through the online system. Scary times! I hope your consultant can sort things for you x
Are you ok now? That’s awful. It is scary. I rang our surgery yesterday and for an automated message to ring back at a less busy time with no indication of when
Yes thank you. After a battle with King’s, they finally took me on and sorted it. Cost me 6 months of my life though! It’s incredibly frustrating and so time consuming 😔
OMG, this is NUTS! Totally insane, if you ask me. And imagine if you needed them during the height of Covid-19? Sorry, but it breaks my heart to see how the NHS has been gutted by these conservative governments. Instead of trying to reduce the 45p tariff to 40p, they should increase it to 50p, which could vastly increase revenue and help the government inject lots of much needed funds into things like the NHS. Trickle down economics has NEVER worked, because the trickle dries up due to greed of the wealthiest. Instead, that model ends up in causing increased debt among the lower earners, which ends up being a tsunami of debt!
I know – it’s seems so crazy, right?
I find this very interesting. Of course I am sorry for what you went through but I do appreciate you sharing this. Here in the US we complain constantly and rightfully about our health care system. Many will say that a National Health care is the answer but you guys have that and still problems persist. I would have never been as patient as you were. This sounds to me like a recipe for death. If this is typical how do people with life threatening injuries survive?
It does sound, from you essay, as if we share one thing, lack of funding from our failure to tax the super rich.
I don’t think everyone does survive the wait sadly. I’ve heard some really harrowing stories since sharing this 😞
What a horrible experience, Louise – it would have made me feel ten times worse. So sorry you had to go through it. Agree something desperately needs to be done. Wishing you a speedy recovery x
Thanks so much x
My husband was taken ill, just over two weeks ago. Like you we had never been in a situation where we needed to dial 999. I won’t go into detail but he spent the night in A & E, waiting to be admitted to a ward, while the hospital emergency room was like a battle zone (it was Saturday night) with doctors, nurses and paramedics working like Trojans. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and help but obviously that requires years of training.
Hope you are on the road to recovery. xxx
Wow. Just … wow. I’m so sorry you had to go through this, Louise. What a harrowing experience! My heart goes out to you. ❤ I hope you get things resolved soon.
I've heard it's bad here in Canada too, with lines of ambulances waiting. It seems to be the way of the world … at least where there is a conservative government.