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HomeNewsTales from the NHS front line: The Waiting Room

Tales from the NHS front line: The Waiting Room


THE wasp sting produced a two-inch blister like red bubble gum on my wife’s leg. I’ve never seen such a bad reaction – did those jabs make the immune system hyperactive? We sincerely regret the Pfizer booster that half-killed my wife.

We gave up on the idea of seeing our GPs. They won’t let you make an appointment in person and so you’d go through phone hell; goodness knows when you’d get to see one of the elusive medics. Even then there would no doubt be a referral to hospital as defensive medicine.

So we cut out the middleman and drove to the walk-in centre at the local hospital. Only it’s not a walk-in, it’s Same Day Emergency Care (SDEC) and you have to register online to get a slot. Not having a smartphone we could not do this while we were there, so we had to return home and use the laptop. We got to see a doctor that afternoon, who referred my wife to the major hospital a few miles away – need to check there’s not a clot in that hot, stiff leg. (How do people without cars and computers manage?)

Heartlands Hospital used to be called East Birmingham District Hospital in the days when public corporations were unashamed, because it was taken for granted that they served us. Today their self-serving is covered over with hearts or rainbows – maybe unicorns next? Still, off we go to their SDEC next to Ward 19. We’re warned that the waiting time could be up to six hours; please don’t ask for blood test results within four; abuse of staff will not be tolerated.

The first wait is for the triage nurse. We arrived at 3.30pm and judging by the throughput I estimated our turn would be at five past four: correct. Blood is taken.

We are then called to a different waiting room, much larger, and already most chairs are taken. This is where we hunker down for the long siege. There is a TV to pacify us, also free coffee and sandwiches. More patients come in; it gets to the point where a nurse asks companions to leave to make room for fresh arrivals. I go to an on-site shop for a pen, a Puzzler and a paper (the Guardian; the Daily Mail being unavailable, seemingly non grata in the NHS.)

At 9.30, as our six hours are up, my wife is seen by a junior doc, who wants to refer up to a senior. The waiting room is to close at ten and the staff to go off shift. A nurse straightens the chairs, which are in three shades of blue; she swaps a couple to make them match and smilingly admits to OCD when I say that’s just what I would do. Will there be time for us to be seen, or will we have to come back tomorrow?

No, of course not. We are herded down to the Medical Assessment Unit (MAU) and our numbers swell a group already there; our hearts sink. There are supposed to be two doctors but we have only one, who is juggling MAU and SDEC referrals, three curtained patients (one of whom is groaning awfully, like an animal) and three emergency cardiac calls elsewhere. We sit largely in silence, like spiders starving each other out.

Until Amin sparks up. He shows my wife photos on his smartphone: Pikachu his kitten, which likes KFC; his late father, ‘a good man, a modest man’ who had died so suddenly when he’d seemed so healthy; his mother and ninety-something grandmother. Amin is a hospital porter so he knows the routine: he has come prepared with a carrier bag full of provisions. He offers to get us some coffee and fetches some biscuits from near the desk, then digs out French Fries. He ends up giving us a notebook from the Three phone network and my wife says we will always remember him when we see it.

His family are from Bangladesh – not Pakistan, he emphasises. ‘We (he and his sister next to him) were born here. We’re lucky. We love this country.’ They also love the Royal Family; his father had been invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party in recognition of his work with young people.

Believers in God, King and country; hard work and kindness. When the Tories become conservative they may have a future, while the Guardian seethes and withers.

Amin worked night shifts in Warwick until one day he drank so many Red Bulls to keep going that he ended up in a ward himself with tachycardia. The NHS cured him of lymphoma with surgery and chemo (‘God is good’); he’s here to check it hasn’t returned and despite arriving at six no doctor has yet seen him.

His sister asks about me. Learning that I used to teach English – yes, literature as well – she looks at me with interest and respect; almost a first for me in this philistine Anglo-culture.

Amin goes round the corner to cheer and chat; a black man calls God’s blessing on him. It’s now 2am and I begin to worry that we’ve been waiting for a senior consultant who may not actually be on shift. At this moment she’s sent for and the doc has all the information on-screen, so that part of the system works. Three meds prescribed, though somehow we ended up with only one, also an ultrasound scan for possible clots; come back tomorrow (today) at 2pm.

Poor Amin is still in limbo, a fleeting shadow of worry passing over him. As we leave, a middle-aged woman sits alone in the corridor, wiping tears from her face.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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