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HomeCulture WarThe hospital code of DNB – Do Not Bother about old folk

The hospital code of DNB – Do Not Bother about old folk


IS IT incompetence or is it official policy for hospitals to kill the old?

Actually, not just the old. Long before Covid, the wife of a friend contracted an infection and was taken to hospital. When her husband got there he found her unattended and untubed in bed (this was when hospitals had beds). She needed fluids but had nothing; the nurses seemed unable or unwilling to do anything and there was no doctor in sight.

My friend is a big and – when he chooses to be – formidable person; he said he wanted a line run into her immediately and made it clear he would be taking names and was prepared to inflict thorough procedural wrath if staff didn’t jump to it. I’m convinced that she would not be alive today had it not been for her lion of a man.

She was in her thirties at the time.

I’ve written before about another friend who didn’t feel safe in hospital and how his equally formidable brother had to push for him to get home. It was a story of reluctance to treat, crucial X-ray evidence overlooked, prizing ward tidiness over patient nurture, staff clumsiness and failure to follow the post-operative programme set by the surgeon; of an incompetently monitored drug regime. He was a good, brilliant man and died prematurely, but mercifully in a hospice, at the age of 77.

Last month I lost another friend, also aged 77. He had been a keen skier and qualified instructor, but had apparently started to suffer from heart failure. His daughter messaged me to say he was terminally ill but was ‘being made comfortable’.

When I visited the ward I had to don a plastic gown and gloves: he now had C. diff as well as his heart problem. Acquired how? From where? His eyes were half open but unseeing; I told him about his just-born grandson and left a congratulations card; he seemed unconscious throughout until just at the end, when his eyes turned in my direction, but I’m not sure he recognised me.

A day or two later, I took some flowers and put them on his chest, because I’d remembered that Bertrand Russell’s wife did that for her husband when he lay semi-comatose (his eyes welled up with tears; he eventually recovered). Sadly in January most flowers have no appreciable scent, but it made no difference: my friend’s eyes were shut and he was breathing stertorously; he knew nothing.

Why did he know nothing? He was heavily drugged. I asked about hydration: the nurse told me all fluids were now withheld. He was dead a couple of days afterwards.

For that is the ‘care’ he had been receiving. The system previously known as the Liverpool Care Pathway became infamous, but all the NHS has done is to change the name to ‘end-of-life care’; I hope my friend’s daughter didn’t understand the implications. ‘Care’ is a vile medical euphemism. The patient is given powerful analgesics and allowed to perish from hunger and especially thirst; it is assumed that he cannot feel what would otherwise be the agonies of dehydration and of the consequent collapse of his organs.

And it tidies him out of the way. ‘Die faster, we need the beds.’

In today’s soulless world, if we are nothing after we die, we are nothing now. We – and especially the old – are persons of no importance. You may as well put us out with the bins. All is okay as long as you use the right language, keep smiling and make sure the paperwork is straight.

The above cases are not localised: the examples I’ve given are from three hospitals in different parts of the country. Yesterday I learned of a fourth, but one who got away, just. Another elderly man, a fellow writer and internet pal, very bright, widely experienced and full of life, was taken ill before Christmas and went into hospital in the east of England, to have emergency brain and bowel operations.

Actually, not emergency; not at first. For when he was admitted unconscious, a different decision was taken; a Dying Room decision, of which he learned only a few days ago. Here is his account:

‘My wife received a phone call to be at the hospital the following morning to have a meeting with the doctor. She turned up at 10.00 but the doctor was not there: he had been called away on an emergency!

‘While she waited she found the room I had been put in, to find I was alone with no tubes, wires etc attached; very strange . . .

‘Despite her waiting for hours the doctor never appeared and another appointment was made for the following day.

‘She arrived with a friend and again the doctor was missing. She spoke to one of the nurses who was attending me and asked why there was no equipment attached to me; the nurse in a roundabout way said the doctor had removed the equipment and said no resuscitation.

‘Still no doctor, which annoyed the wife who started to ask questions. The nurse said she would try and contact him and would also try to contact his superior who was in the hospital that day.

‘After hours, the other doctor turned up and after talking to the wife and nurses went in to see me. Fifteen minutes later he reappeared to say he did not understand the decision not to resuscitate as I showed more than enough life and had in my delirium attempted to get out of bed and leave!

‘He then arranged to take over my care with the two nurses who had been with me from the start and had me moved to a general ward. I was also for the first time given some food, which I had been deliberately starved of by the other doctor. The new doctor supervised me back to some sort of life and the rest is history.

‘The original doctor was not seen again in my vicinity. How come someone like that decides one’s fate? If it hadn’t been for the wife insisting on getting someone to look at me I would not be here.

‘I await further tales from these days when I was sedated or out of it; apparently there is more. One thing stands out: the good staff are very good but there is a percentage who should not be in the profession.’

I was furious on his behalf and asked whether he would be making an official complaint. He replied: ‘My wife did consider suing the first doctor, but the advice was “only if you have a recording of instructions”. As he was not available at any time this would have been impossible and would have required statements from the two nurses, which would not have happened. If she had been informed of the decision it might have been a different matter.’

Naively I had thought that a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order (DNR) has to be agreed with next of kin; it may possibly have been like that once (remember how during the Covid panic there was a scandal about DNRs being completed without relatives’ knowledge?) but I’ve looked it up and it’s not so now.

However this goes beyond DNR: it’s ‘don’t bother’. Oldies clutter up the place, costing money in pensions, healthcare and housing. Living too long in this country is a crime meriting capital punishment; but in the nicest possible way.

Compare that with the wonderful care Spectator columnist Jeremy Clarke, terminally ill with cancer, has received from the French medical system. Rather than face being culled here, I am beginning to give serious consideration to moving abroad, somewhere that has respect for life.

I understand there are lots of rubber boats going a-begging at Dover.

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

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