I was in Casualty at Kingston Hospital last Thursday with one of my sons, who had a condition in his lower limbs which was both painful and mysterious. We thought it might be sinister, maybe a blood clot, and the doctor gave him a letter and told him to go to A&E. It was 6pm on a Thursday night and the waiting room in the front had only about a dozen people in it.
One of the Triage nurses is a friend’s daughter, a dusky rose, and she greeted us, and said that although it looked pretty empty, they had been very short staffed and behind the scenes it was heaving. Prepare for a wait, and Goodnight, her shift was done.
We both had books. He had Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I had the latest Granta. Although we were worried about him, we were at least in the hospital. It was warm. The chairs are pretty comfortable. The reading was good.
And then it started to fill up. A builder arrived at about 6.30 and sat opposite us. He’d been told it would be a long wait. How long had we been waiting?
About half an hour, we said. What had he done?
“It was this morning, I was up a roof and drilled a bit out of my finger.” He held up his left index finger with a none too clean tissue wrapped around it.
He unwrapped it and a bloody bit of meat was exposed, dirty, with a bit of transparent flesh flapping off it.
“It’ll need stitches,” he said. “I’ve got a scar on my forehead which healed with a ridge because I didn’t get it stitched. Look. Thought I was hard, see! Huh! If this heals with a ridge, it will interfere with how I work. I need my hands.”
“Why didn’t you go this morning?” I asked.
“I work for myself. I had to finish the job. Get the day done and the money in. It was a cash job. I’m owed so much money on invoiced jobs at the moment that I can’t make ends meet.”
“So I just wrapped it in tissue and carried on best I could.”
A woman in a hijab emerged from behind the scenes. She was talking on a mobile and had a folder of notes under her arm, and was headed straight for the exit to the car park. Another woman followed. “Come back! We need those notes. You must come back in. Come!” I wasn’t sure if the would-be escapee was a patient or a Doctor.
Now nearly all the seats were full and it was getting noisy. Sick babes were moved on in pretty quickly. There were some very ashen faces, people with arms in home made slings, people limping about, all accompanied by one or two friends or relatives. About a fifth of the sick people were recognisably not English and they had even more supporters with them.
Three blokes came in, builders, young men. The one in the middle was in shock, covered in brick dust, and his head was decorated in pink stuff that had been blobbed out of a sort of syringe, like a mastic gun. His eyelids and eyebrows were blobbed in pink. He had to be helped round, presumably he couldn’t see. It was 8pm by now.
We noticed an elderly bearded man on the other side of the room. He had an old tweed overcoat on, and a pair of track-suit bottoms and boots. There was a thick gold chain around his neck. That was all. His overcoat was open to his bare chest. He looked miserable. He got up and went over to the desk. “I want to know about patient transport. I’ve been waiting hours now. When will it be?”
“I don’t know,” said the man at the desk. “We will let you know.”
The old man plonked himself down again.
And I didn’t see this, we were at the back of the room, but I heard about it from a woman called Joan, who I met the following day, and who was admitted from Casualty into the Acute Assessment Unit (along with my mother who was delivered by ambulance half an hour after I took my son home – it was a long night for me), because her stomach had swollen up like a nine month pregnancy on account of a kidney dysfunction caused by acute constipation, and who recognised me from the night before. An elderly couple were sitting in front of the reception desk. He looked just awful. Then he fitted and his head lolled to the side. His wife screamed. Joan shouted to the receptionist, who said, “Yes, we know about him.” Joan said, “But I think he’s dead! Look at him!” Nothing happened. No Doctors came out. Joan shook his shoulder and he came back to life.
That happened a couple of times before he was admitted.
The old man with the gold chain and nothing but hairs to keep his chest warm approached the desk again. “But when will it be? You don’t understand. I’ve been here all day. I need to get home.” Every “e” was elongated, pleading.
“How long is a piece of string?” said the receptionist.
“I don’t know? Please tell me? How long is this piece of string?”
“Look we’ve got one ambulance for patient transport. And a whole list of people who need it.”
“But how long? Please give me some idea.”
“Two hours. At least.”.
“Two hours!”. He walked back to his seat and cried.
My son and I looked at each other. Poor man. This was very hard on him. We decided to pay his fare home. It wouldn’t be much more than a fiver. I looked in my purse. I had twenty quid and some shrapnel.
I went over and sat down next to him. He smelt mildly of booze, like a pub at eleven in the morning.
“Hallo,” I said. “I’m sorry you are having trouble. Have you thought about getting a cab?”
He looked at me with big soppy blue eyes, and emptied his pockets. “I haven’t got any money.”.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got some.”, I said. “Would you mind if I paid for it?”
“That’s really kind of you, but I don’t want to be a charity case.”, he said, grabbing my hand. He didn’t smell that bad really.
“Well it sounds like it’s going to be a long wait.” I said. “Are you going to be ok?”
“Not really. I’ve been here all day. It’s been a long day.”
“How are you feeling at the moment. I mean can I get you a drink of water? Would that help?”
“No, no thank you. I’ve been drinking water all day. I could do with something stronger if you know what I mean!”
I knew what he meant.
“Please let me get you a cab. Look, there’s a free phone over there for the cab-service.”
“Are you sure? Well if you’re sure, that would be so very good of you.”
I was on my feet and moving towards the phone. “Where’s home?” I asked.
“XXX Sunbury Road, Walton.” he said.
Walton! What the bloody hell was he doing in Kingston A&E!!
It was absolutely too late to back out now, in the middle of the waiting room, between the old man I’d offered to help and the phone.
I explained the situation to the cab firm.
“Well it will be £22.50,” she said. “Has he wet himself?”.
I don’t know why she asked this. It was as if she could see him more clearly than I could.
“No, he just smells a bit of alcohol. But he’s been in hospital all day. It’s stale, quite mild really. But hang on a sec, let me check I’ve got money.”
I had £23.37 in my purse.
“Ok, so the driver will be there in about ten minutes.”.
I went and sat down next to him again. He was very grateful. And so he should be. “You’re so kind,” he said. “I’ve been here all day. It’s been so awful.”
“Why did you come here?” I asked. “Don’t you have a more local hospital?”
Walton is so far away in this tight urban landscape, about a fifteen to twenty minute run, and it’s behind the back of beyond and then some, and I haven’t a clue what the hospital situation is like there.
“Yes, I’ve been to St. Peter’s several times, but they were no good. I thought Kingston might be better. But they were no good either!”
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m just so worried. I’m worried all the time. My Landlord wants to sell the bungalow and evict me. It’s so stressful. I feel very unwell.”
“Oh! That’s awful.”
“Yes but the doctors and nurses just won’t listen. The problem is that none of the staff are English. They are all Johnny Foreigners. England’s not like it used to be. I can’t understand them and they can’t understand me.”
In the background I can hear someone say. “If it wasn’t for foreigners, there wouldn’t be an NHS,” which were my thoughts, projected.
“Not one, not one of them was English. They just don’t understand. They come over here, taking our jobs. England should be for English people. Like you and me!”
I didn’t tell him I was half immigrant Irish, and married to an immigrant who was a hard working leading scientist, and I wasn’t clever or hard working enough to be a Doctor, and what’s more I suspected that neither was he.
“Are you a Doctor then?”
“No, I was an engineer. Why don’t they just go home to where they came from?”
“Well a lot of them were born here.”
Like my boys. They are a quarter English, and a quarter Irish, a quarter Italian, a quarter Kosovan. Where should they “Go home” to? I didn’t voice this. They’ve got a foreign name. It was something my son and I had just been talking about. Was that going to be a problem for them in this new Brexit world.
“They can go where they like but they should leave this country to the English! Make it great again!”
Oh dear god. What to say here? I learnt a little from Brexit. Picking arguments with selfish stupid old Xenophobes with you – a self-obsessed distant relation, who wanted an end to immigration and thought that leaving Europe would put a stop to, not the Europeans, because you had nothing against the Europeans, it was those Pakistanis you wanted out – or you, graceless local politicker, who wanted more control of our legislation, which was fair point though, but we could stay in and change it -or you, my mum’s gardener, who voted to leave just for a laugh, to see what Boris could do, because, you know, he’s so ridiculous, and that’s one in the eye for Cameron – arguing with the likes of you does not make me happy and does not change your viewpoint. I mean, nobody liked Cameron. But don’t give us Nuttall and the UKIPS and a right tight little England in his place. Don’t give us stupidity and lies. Don’t, for Christ’s sake, give us America.
At that moment the cab driver arrived. He was Asian.
“See? They are taking all our jobs.”
“Oh, do you know, cab-driving is definitely not for me. Or you.”
“No, I suppose not.”
As we said good-bye, he said, “You will come and see me, won’t you! You’ve been so kind to me. Will you phone me! I will pay you back.”
I said “Of course.”
“But how can you, you haven’t got my phone number!”
“It doesn’t matter. Just be kind to someone else. That will be good! Good-bye, and good luck!”
And I kissed him on his fluffy bearded cheek, because he was a poor old sod.
I went back to my son. “This is like a zoo, Mum. I wish we could go home,” he said.
Yes, but where to?
Anyway, that passed the time.
My son gets called into Minors at about 9.15pm. Minors consists of a series of half a dozen cubicles big enough for a chair, a small waiting area, and a desk area. The nurse, a skinny lad, possibly Vietnamese, with an interesting top-knot held together by a kirby grip and an elastic band, shows us into cubicle 3, and points out our doctor, a West African woman whose hair is styled with what looks like lard, but can’t possibly be. She immediately comes over and tells us to vacate that cubicle and disappears into cubicle 4, emerges, and then disappears completely. After a few minutes, nobody else comes to cubicle 3, and we discuss occupying it again. The Doctor comes by again, brandishing notes and calling my son’s name.
“Where have you been?” she asks.
“Here,” we say.
“But I’ve been calling you,” she says, “why didn’t you answer?”
“But we’ve been here. The nurse put us into cubicle 3, and you told us to get out of it.”
“But I went into the main waiting room to get you.”
“But the nurse called us, we saw you, and you told us to get out of the cubicle.”
Our faith in the Doctor was wasting away.
But as it happens, she was very good. Tests were done, and although she could not say what was wrong, she could say, with confidence, that there was no blood clot, no kidney problems. Go home and if it persists, go back to the GP, was the advice. And he’s better. It was a thing, but not a persistent thing, and hopefully it won’t come back.
In the middle of all this my mobile rings. It’s Dinka, Mum’s Bulgarian carer. Mum’s not well. What should she do?
It was going to be a long night.