It was a scene common in Oxford these days; a young beggar sitting outside Tesco’s. I noticed he had a bloody nose. He began to cry, said he’d been attacked and needed money to ‘get into a shelter’. I didn’t believe him about the shelter but give him some cash to dry his tears. The following week I saw him again and noticed what a handsome young man he was, thirty at the most. As a Christian I tried to cheer him up and bought him a sandwich which he accepted gladly. At the same time my Conservative-voting mind was asking: why is he sitting there wasting his life when he should be a useful and productive member of society?
Carrying those two strands of thinking, I got to know Max over the next few months. He often looked battered and then gained a deep wound on his leg, half covered by a flapping, filthy bandage. Every time I saw him the wound was worse. One day when I stopped to talk to him I saw a man trying to get him some credits on his mobile so that he could call his doctor. He told me he’d been to A & E several times. When the leg began to suppurate he said he’d been in hospital but they’d put him out as they needed the bed.
Then he disappeared. I asked other rough sleepers about him. One said there were maggots in his leg. Others made it clear that they didn’t like him, perhaps because he was good-looking – they said he’d had money from women which he’d squandered – or because his hopelessness was even greater than theirs. They accused him of using his bad leg to get more money from the public.
Then I heard he was having the leg amputated. Someone said he was near death. The other men were not sympathetic even at this, and I didn’t get the impression that he had any relatives around. Most of the homeless men I speak to spent their young lives in care, or have broken off from their families. What to do? Obviously find out which hospital and ward he was in and go to see him. My altruism and conservative desire for a constructive outcome said he would not be able to discharge himself so quickly to get drugs, so this could be a turning point. He might at least now be helped to get his addictions under control.
Of course we no longer live in an age when Christians can carry out acts of charity or in an age of basic common sense; we live in the age of the Data Protection Act and, since 1998, the Caldicott Rules, invented by Dame Fiona Caldicott, together so stringent that doctors cannot give even other doctors a patient’s details. As a hospital visitor in a big London hospital for three years I’d had no problems visiting patients and following them up. Staff there are too busy, too tired and too scarce to give a would-be visitor or a chaplain the third degree. When I moved to Oxford it was different. I first noticed the increased bureaucracy and the influence of the Caldicott Rules, (Dame Fiona Caldicott is chair of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust) when I tried to visit a neighbour who had broken her wrists. I was bewildered to find that the front desk wouldn’t tell me her ward. I had to know it in advance, or phone her to get her permission to visit. I didn’t have a mobile with me and she couldn’t have used one. I found her eventually and slipped in unnoticed, but then I had been on a tabloid newspaper for fifteen years. I’ve hidden in cupboards and climbed through windows in my time. Thousands of others would have gone meekly home.
It seemed baffling that in a country which for fifty years has systematically downgraded the idea of the family that they alone can make visits, while friends are barred. The effects of these rules came home even more starkly when I became a hospital visitor in Oxford. I met a man of 95 who was being discharged to an empty house. He’d been a church-goer when his wife was alive so I contacted their pastoral care team to ask if they’d send someone to see him. As a result I was accused of breaking the Data Protection Act and sacked. I left feeling determined to try to put this pettifogging, bureaucratic cruelty out of my mind. But recently it loomed up again when a former neighbour in London told me she was terminally ill. We kept in touch by phone, but inevitably one day there was no answer. Because of the DPA I knew that as I was not a relative or a ‘nominated carer’ I wouldn’t be able to discover where she’d gone. A chaplain in her hospital, breaking the law, told me she’d been moved to a hospice, and I contacted it. At first I was told I couldn’t talk to her as I was not a relative, but then a sensible-sounding, older Irish nurse put me through. We had a friendly chat the day before she died, but only because someone had the courage to think beyond the rules.
I tried to find Max. I was helped when someone at my church tipped me off, like a spy, that he was thought to be on a ward for tropical diseases. When I rang I was answered by a nurse who could barely speak English. She didn’t understand why I didn’t have his full name. I asked the local pharmacist who knew Max if he could give it to me, but of course that was not allowed. A second go got a Sister with a bit more command of the language, but she complained that they were too busy, went off and left me hanging, came back and said she couldn’t tell me anything as it’s against the rules, but she let slip that there was a man on the ward with a bad leg. I asked if I could visit him. She said she’d call me back later, but didn’t.
There is this young man I am determined to try to help, even though the law will try to stop me. Thousands of other people do not have my tenacity as a journalist, and as a result thousands of hospital patients will remain unvisited in bleak wards where, I know from experience, if they are without close relatives coming in, they can be assaulted by night staff and neglected by nurses with no redress. Less dramatically, it’s very nice to visit friends when they are in hospital, and if you are in the hospital bed yourself the sight of a friend bearing grapes and good cheer can be the only thing that keeps you from anxiety and even despair.