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.