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My hell with the Health Service – at £750 a night


THERE is a place in London which charges £750 for a night’s accommodation. It’s not Claridge’s but an NHS hospital ward, where, a few weeks ago, I spent 19 miserable hours.

I had come to London to see my mother and friends. My husband is currently working abroad and I frequently visit the UK.

Before travelling I felt fit and well. After arriving I felt tired and suspected I had a urinary tract infection. I attributed this to jetlag and the perils of flying long haul in economy class, and figured it would clear up on its own.

How wrong I was. Three nights later I couldn’t sleep due to extreme pain and chills from a high fever. I was unable to eat and couldn’t even sip water without vomiting. My mother asked a family friend – a GP – to come and see me. Finding that my blood pressure had plummeted to 60/40 he called for an ambulance which rushed me to the resuscitation department at one of London’s leading hospitals.

My blood oxygen level had crashed to 87, my temperature escalated to almost 39 degrees and I had a tachycardic heart rate of 120. My inflammation markers were high, indicating a severe infection. A couple of hours delay in seeking medical attention would have shifted me from being dangerously ill into dying. I was quickly given oxygen and the strongest antibiotics that the NHS has. I spent the next ten hours there while staff battled to stabilise me and raise my blood pressure.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the resuscitation department was clean, modern and efficient. During my time there I mentioned several times that I had travel insurance and asked if I would need to pay. I was advised not to worry, which later proved to be false reassurance. The consultant in charge of my care explained I would be admitted into a ward and placed next to the nurses’ station where I could be frequently monitored.

But this was not to be. When I finally arrived in the ward I was put at the other end. And thus began my descent into what felt like Dante’s nine circles of Hell.

Other than my blood pressure being checked a few times I was ignored throughout the night. The constant noise meant I couldn’t sleep. An elderly woman in the opposite bed was suffering from dementia or mental health problems. Through this long night, when all I could do was clench my fists and pray for morning, she shrieked and wailed. The monitors in the ward, including mine, clanged constantly the entire time. The woman in the bed next to me was deaf so when the nurses spoke to her they shouted.

Someone had placed a small jug of water on the table next to me but it was out of my reach. When I finally managed to sit up and pour from it, my shaking hands meant that most of it ended up on the floor. I asked for more but it never turned up. I also had to ask for painkillers as none was given, despite my severe pain.

The shared bathroom floor was filthy, spattered with yellow urine spots. The dirty toilet induced waves of nausea in me. Every few hours I would walk into the bathroom to find cardboard potties of bloodied urine left on the floor. There was no anti-bacterial gel – surely a requisite on a ward specialising in curing infections – and throughout my stay no cleaning took place.

At around 6am I finally managed to sleep. An hour later I was woken by two nurses screaming at each other for at least half an hour.

During this bewildering morning a health care assistant asked me if I was on a special diet. She may as well not bothered as my affirmative answer was ignored and the only option available to me for breakfast was an apple which turned brown the moment I bit into it. I hadn’t eaten for 36 hours and had taken strong medication so I needed nutritious food. But the NHS was incapable of delivering this. After not been given any lunch I hauled myself out of bed and staggered to the nurses’ station to ask for food.

My mood further declined after the ward consultant came to see me and informed me that because my inflammation markers had increased I had to stay another night.

Just as I was accepting that remaining meant experiencing another level of hell a woman marched to my bedside and informed me that I owed the NHS £750 for my night on the ward.

I explained that I am a British citizen and I paid my taxes for almost sixteen years. She retorted that since I had been out of the country for over six months I would have to pay up. I begged her to call my travel insurers to see if they would pay, which she refused to do.

Maybe I should have lied like thousands of health tourists do to get free treatment on the NHS. But it’s not in my nature to do so.

For some £750 is small change but not for me, and I had no guarantee that my insurers would reimburse me. Feeling vulnerable, exhausted and ill I had no choice but to pay this extortionate bill.

I couldn’t afford to pay for another night despite medical advice to stay. I calculated that my chances of survival were better if I left that day even though I had worsening symptoms. In the early evening I was discharged with antibiotics so weak that two days later the infection started to come back. My GP friend then prescribed much stronger antibiotics which worked.

The medical staff I came across were pleasant. But my ordeal was truly the tale of two hospitals. The excellent care I received in the resuscitation department almost changed my negative perception of the NHS. But my experience on the ward meant it didn’t. The hospital in question received £885million from the government in 2017/18, an increase of £28.8million on the previous year.

Its directors must explain why they fail to provide basic care such as water, food, painkillers, appropriate medication and a quiet and clean environment. And charge British citizens for the ‘privilege’ of it all.

Thanks to a doughty Jewish mother and a doctor friend, I just survived Britain’s dangerously unhealthy Health Service.

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Karen Harradine
Karen Harradine
Karen is an anthropologist and freelance journalist. She writes on anti-Semitism, Israel and spirituality. She is @KarenH777on Twitter.

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