Friday 12 September 2014

There's Always a Gladys

Every single time I'm in hospital, there will be an old lady in my bay that I fall in love with.

Way back in 1995, it was Gladys. Gladys would flirt with my Dad, every time he walked onto the ward greeting him with a loud "Allo Faaarver", offering to share her humbugs with him.

The NHS was in a very dark place indeed in 1995. After 16 years of Conservative erosion, staffing levels had fallen to the most dangerously low levels I've ever experienced and nurses were even striking in a last ditch attempt to win the battle for excellent health care, free at the point of use.

One day, just one student nurse was left on a ward of 22 patients. Without 2 trained staff nurses no controlled drugs could be given, patients screamed with pain, an old man fell by his bed and another patient had to help her lift him back up. The good nurses had long since suffered stress related breakdowns or given up their jobs, and only those who didn't really care how much their patients suffered remained.

A very few dedicated heroes, doctors and nurses worked straight shifts just to keep the NHS on life support. It wasn't unusual to meet doctors on 72 hour marathon shifts or nurses staying hours in unpaid overtime to bridge the gaps.

There was no-one to hold Gladys' drink for her or feed her meals. Dad and Dave took shifts just to make sure she got any fluids or nutrition at all.

The thing that unites these remarkable women is forbearance. Not once do they ever complain. Not once do they ask for anything, not once do they mention the often excruciating pain they suffer through. I've become a world expert at spotting it. Good nurses recognise that the strength of this generation - the generation who fought for our freedom - means they must always be sure they are getting what they need. You'll never hear them fighting for themselves, never. They apologise every time anyone does something for them, convinced they aren't worthy of the basic care and dignity my generation insist upon. I imagine they have never asked for anything for themselves, instead, dedicating their lives to helping others - their families, friends and lovers.

How easy it is to look through them. To forget that they loved and cared, just as we do. How easy to forget that they may have climbed mountains or swum oceans in those glorious days of vitality and youth. How easy to forget they may have been brain surgeons or explorers or olympians. How easy to patronise them now, as the broken and spent shells of their bodies belie the gifts of their past.

Very occasionally, I hear a member of staff speak to them with contempt. Perhaps tell them off as though they were little children or patronise them as though their brains had always been 95 years old. I've seen them dismiss worried life partners or leave them too long in their own mess - after all, they'll never complain will they?

We have a duty to this generation to understand their stoicism. To remember their great bravery, a bravery that thanks to them, most of us have never had to show. We have a duty to make utterly sure that their final days are lived in dignity and as much comfort as we can possibly ensure. We have to remember they were born in a time before antibiotics or heart transplants. They accept pain and misery we could never contemplate.

But our gift to them must be to provide for their needs even when they are so unlikely to express them. To realise that when they say it "hurts a bit" they are close to their limit. To realise that they would never dream of asking someone to feed or wash or dress them - the shame!!

I'm proud to say that almost every member of staff in this hospital do so admirably and with touching compassion and care.

But back in 95, we got a phone call from Gladys' family. She had been readmitted and this time, there was no "faaarver", no busy-body patient in the bed opposite. She had died of dehydration for want of someone to hold her cup and gently ease the straw between her lips.

Was it cruelty? Neglect? I don't believe so. It was understaffing. And we are on that same slippery slope again.

This stay it is Ivy* Ivy is dying in great pain. Sid* comes in every morning without fail at 8am, wearing his best smart blazer and his pork-pie hat, in order that she may nag him as she has every morning for the last 70 years. He combs her hair and holds her glass of milk and brushes her cheek tenderly as he says goodbye. As he turns to walk away, only I see the tear he tries to hide.

We can stop this Britain. We can demand the NHS we cherish. or we can let it descend into a living horror story. Again. It's up to us.

If only for the generation that gave us our freedom, please, don't let it slip away.


  1. Another compelling piece Sue. I very much hope this ends up in the Guardian or somewhere with more readership. I remember those dark days when grandparents went into hospitals that were dirty barns filled with screams, and when all families could do was try to get them into private care. I also remember the transformation by the 2000s, when my mother needed - and got - world class medical intervention and care. If she was that ill now I don't know whether she'd make it. We need to remember both the good and the bad, and fight for the good as bastards with private wealth drag quality public services away from us.

  2. What a touching and thoughtful piece. It really struck a chord with me. I have a wonderful Aunty who turned 90 this year. In her past she played the violin, worked on the barrage balloons and later worked on some of the earliest computers for a bank. She and many of her generation are to be treasured and deserve the best of care.

  3. I've had them, a Theresa, an Ivy and someone who's proper name I can't remember because everyone called her Granny (it was even on her board "Name: (such and such). Likes to be called: Granny"
    Understaffing is a killer. Very literally. And lack of understanding, on several of my ward stays I've had to ask HCAs to help one of the 5 other ladies in my bay to eat or brush her hair etc. because they were struggling and didn't want to waste their time.
    I sat with Theresa all night while she was waiting for someone to respond to her request for pain killers, I kept buzzing for her because she wouldn't (didn't want to be a bother). She was crying, quietly but definitely crying. We talked about her life growing up in Wales and the sweetheart she couldn't marry because of the war, that until she had gone into hospital she had been planning to meet him that week. That she couldn't telephone him because she didn't know his number. She told me about how she couldn't read or write, and that she was ashamed of that, but loved to be read to. I read to her for a while after that until the pain killers came and she drifted off to sleep.
    The following day she buzzed a nurse for me when I wouldn't! However, it was the shirty nurse, the one that told her off when she was insistent on going to the toilet not using incopads (she got there on time everytime). Shirty nurse was not impressed, especially as I was in too much pain to speak properly but Theresa told her off!

    There was a very lovely outcome though with regards to he sweetheart. Her family had got in touch with him and told him where she was. Instead of meeting her in the pub he came and saw her in the hospital. It made my heart melt!

    1. What a touching story, well done you. I'm not are others can understand the very close bonds you form during long in-patient stays. You are sisters in aversely, you look out for each other and talk about your deepest fears and dreams in those small hours when the rest of the (healthy) world sleeps

  4. My mother died five years ago as a result of this type of 'care'. It's made my father unwilling to seek medical help, even when he desperately needs to. I'm so glad that my local medical services haven't sunk to that level, but maybe it's just a matter of time.

    1. My Mother died too, also as a result of this type of care. I am already hearing of local people being refused even quite simple treatment because it's outside the local practice's budget. The NHS sadly is doomed. I fear it's no longer a case of 'if' it gets completely destroyed, but when!

  5. As always Sue, a thought provoking piece.

    Thankfully I haven't done a long stint since 2001 and it was bad enough then doing 24 hours in A&E while waiting for a bed.

    NHS has now passed it's tipping point, thanks to Tories selling most services off to their chums. It has to be saved, lest we go back to the old dark days of can I afford to see a Doctor?

  6. Hear hear! Universal health care is not only a right, it is a community's strength. It takes a lot to keep a nation together and much of that is the willingness and fortitude to look after our brothers and sisters and make sure that each and everyone's well-being is assured. So, it's not just a matter of charity, but also a matter of humanity. I support your assertion. I hope that people in other countries do start enacting that principle as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! All the best to you!

    Jason Hayes @ DECO Recovery Management

  7. I've been there as well and met some lovely old ladies who don't think it's right to complain or to ask for help.
    I just hope that Scotland can win independence as our NHS is better protected here and we would be able to steer off a lot of the private sales.
    I just wish that all the NHS had been left alone and was still staffed by matrons who ran the hospitals with iron rods.

    1. Please don't be cross with me for suggesting this, but did it occur to you that independence for Scotland makes it much much more likely that the NHS will spend more time in Tory hands? Will make it much more likely that they get to destroy it once and for all?
      I've been appalled and ashamed by the scaremongering and fear of the "No" campaign, but in this instance, I really do believe independence will men the end of the NHS.

    2. I am really fearful that the Scottish people will vote Yes and leave us with these heartless Bustar*s for ever. It won't just be the end of the NHS if they get another term in office, it will be the complete and utter destruction of the welfare state.

  8. Sorry your back in hospital again Sue, I wish you a speedy recovery and pray you are back home with your family soon. I also have spent a few weeks in hospital this summer on two separate occasions at Whiston Hospital, Merseyside; it took all of five minutes to know that they where desperately understaffed from specialists, doctors, nurses on down the line to carers and cleaning staff. I do have to say that every person who cared for me or that I observed except for two whom I sorted out quickly where not only professional, but genuinely cared; however they where ran off their feet trying desperately to do their jobs and take care of their responsibilities in a timely manner to no avail. It is a dangerous game the Tories are playing with the lives of people!

  9. just excellent and so true, as a nurse and a patient I have seen it from both sides and we are sliding backwards slowly again. It is so very sad

  10. Bear in mind that it's not only old ladies on under-staffed wards who die unnecessary deaths. Remember Kane Gorny, the young man who needed a lot of water because of his condition, who when he asked for it was refused, and the staff put off both his parents and the police. He died. And that was only a couple of years ago. If you're quiet they ignore you, if you make a fuss they regard you as aggressive, and punish you.