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Read this shocking account and decide if Our NHS is wonderful

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WE are told repeatedly that the NHS, which receives more than £130billion of taxpayers’ money a year, is among the finest public health systems in the world. Read this and see if you agree. (Warning: graphic descriptions.)

On October 17, Mrs Jean Owen, a 75-year-old who has several health problems and who lives alone, fell heavily in the road outside her flat, smashing her left elbow. A friend took her to the accident and emergency department of Torbay Hospital in Torquay, where she was seen quite quickly, assessed and X-rayed. She was told that the elbow was very badly broken and would need surgery. The elbow – possibly without the wound being cleaned – was plastered, and she was sent home, alone, with a prescription for paracetamol and an appointment for October 30, nearly a fortnight later, for the surgery though, of course, it should have been carried out immediately. 

Mrs Owen was in extreme pain and unable to cope alone, so she went to a friend’s house where she stayed, sleeping on his sofa, until the day of her appointment. The operation was performed on October 30, the plaster replaced, and she was discharged the same day, returning to her friend’s house, still in extreme pain. She was given an appointment to return to the fracture clinic several weeks later. She had no other treatment or support. 

Well before the date of her appointment, Mrs Owen noticed a discharge of evil-smelling pus coming from under the plaster. Unable to get an appointment to see a GP, she showed her arm to a pharmacist in Boots who sent her straight to A&E in a taxi.

She was admitted and the following day had surgery to remove the metalwork and clean the wound, which was then closed and plastered. She remained in hospital, on an antibiotic drip and morphine, for a week. On the day she was meant to be discharged, someone thought to inspect the wound. It was very badly infected, and had to be opened again and cleaned, with tissue cut away, and half-hourly injections of antibiotic through the following night. 

When Mrs Owen left hospital some days later, the wound was still very painful, and discharging blood and pus. She was told that this was normal. She had not been provided with any dressings, although the nurse who walked her to the door took pity on her and found two, which were supposed to last her for weeks until her next appointment, even though they need to be changed at least every two days. As a result, Mrs Owen, a pensioner who relies on benefits, had to buy some online at a cost of more than £27.

Last Saturday, November 7, the wound was still badly infected and it was becoming clear that without urgent treatment she could lose the arm altogether. She went to her GP practice and was seen by a trainee who said that he really didn’t know if the wound was infected or not, but thought it probably was, which could be very serious and should be looked at. She asked him to refer her to the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital as she flatly refused to go back into Torbay Hospital under any circumstances, but the trainee said that this would be impossible. She found the courage to tell him that she had been advised that she was entitled to a second opinion. Oh yes, he said, but only from another doctor from Torbay Hospital. He then noticed that she had an appointment for the fracture clinic for November 12 (Thursday, two days ago), so he left it at that, although he finally said that he could prescribe a tranquilliser to ‘calm her down’! 

I was the senior trauma and orthopaedic surgeon at Torbay Hospital from 1975 to 1992I was sent a photo of the wound; it is probably the worst post-operative wound I have ever seen. There is a serious risk that Mrs Owen will need to have her arm amputated. I was able to arrange for her to be referred to a very skilled surgeon at University College Hospital, London. Her GP is referring her but ‘referral triage’ at county level has to be surmounted.

I have twice complained to Torbay Hospital about Mrs Owen’s ‘treatment’. This open letter to the four relevant ‘health’ bodies, which refers to seven other cases of inadequate care, contains this sentence about Jean Owen: ‘These few words convey nothing of the disastrous delay in treatment. I could say much more but “cavalier” would be a euphemism.’

 I have received one email in response. In part it says:

Thank you for your emails dated 2 November 2020 and 9 November 2020 sent to Dr Rob Dyer [Medical Director for Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust] and the Feedback and Engagement Team within Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust.  Please be assured that Dr Dyer has read your correspondence and asked the Feedback and Engagement Team to acknowledge receipt. 

 Please be advised that the Trust is unable to comment on any concerns you have with the care provided to you by your GP and if you would like to raise concerns you will need to contact your GP Surgery directly or NHS England.

 I would also like to advise that due to data protection and patient confidentiality, the Trust is unable to comment on the care of any other patient without their explicit consent.  If any of the patients you mention in your email would like to raise concerns, they can contact the Feedback and Engagement Team via the contact details below.

On Wednesday I tried urgently to contact Liz Davenport, chief executive of the Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, but my calls were not returned. On Thursday I wrote to her, copied to Dr Dyer, to say that The Conservative Woman would be publishing this account, saying: ‘You had the opportunity to discuss how Jean Owen had been served, and you did not take that up.’

At last Mrs Owen is getting expert care from Simon Lambert and his team at UCH. I very much hope her arm can be saved, though this is not certain. But who, having read this account, would disagree that it is a myth that the NHS is ‘world class’?

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David Halpin
David Halpin FRCS is a retired trauma surgeon.

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