I get a call on Friday afternoon – my father’s having an attack of pancreatitis - he's in a lot of pain and his breathing is laboured. I’m just packing my laptop away and discussing having dinner out with the kids. But needs must so my plans are set aside and I drive round to his flat. Sadly as I arrive he’s already on the phone to the ambulance service – they’re telling him that they won’t send an ambulance as its not life and death – but they recommend he should go to A&E to get a scan. He’s instantly coat and hat on at the door ready to go. I’m not so sure – ‘Really Dad? A&E? On a Friday night?’ I’m not so sure it’s a good idea and try to dissuade him.
But it’s hard to stop him. Is it because he sees every episode as hospital worthy, he's panicking or because someone in authority told him to? It’s hard to fathom. He still seems to be in a lot of pain after apparently taking some unidentifiable painkillers earlier. So we find ourselves at 6 o’clock checking into A&E for what turns into a gruelling 5 hour wait.
At 6.30pm triage give him two paracetemol and by 8pm he’s feeling better. But he is in the system now and reluctant to leave – process must be followed, his gall stones may be on the move and he knows that would be excruciating. A few more hours and we see a doctor. He recommends blood tests and an X-ray. A few more hours and we’re in a new waiting room then back to the first one.
We pass the time reading and in desultory chat. Every time the doctor comes out to call a name my Dad asks ‘What was that name?” I attempt to decipher – I can’t always work it out. “Don’t worry’, I tell him ‘ I will know if it’s yours’, but he still asks every time – may be more than 40 or 50 times…
He enjoys observing the other people in the waiting room. He notices for the first time that it might now be the fashion to have rips in your jeans and comments rather loudly about the young lady sitting opposite us. I realise he can't have noticed his grandchildrens’ attire for a while.
The long hours sitting on plastic chairs start to take its toll. He lost a lot of weight during his bout of illness and there isn’t a lot of padding to support his seat. Finally, at 11pm we call it quits. After 5 hours neither of us think it’s a good idea for a man of 87 to be sitting hour upon hour in an A&E waiting room – particularly when he’s no longer feeling ill. I drop him home and get back to my house, finally sitting down with something to eat. But at midnight my father’s back on the phone. The A&E department have been on the phone telling him off for discharging himself and saying that they would have admitted him because of some of the markers in his blood, he was wrong to go home. After a brief discussion with him explaining that no one owns his body but him and that they shouldn’t have spoken to him like that, I agree to take him back to hospital in the morning to be admitted. He gets to bed and has a good nights sleep - which he wouldn't have had in hospital.
At 10am on Saturday morning we find ourselves back in A & E. Despite them knowing we were there only eleven hours earlier they insist on re-starting triage and order new blood tests. We finally meet a second year junior doctor who explains that my father ought to be admitted because of some of the markers in his blood. He mentions the liver and my father perks up - 'the liver - we've never had that mentioned before' and writes it in his diary. I challenge the doctor on this. Are you really sure it’s in the best interests of his health? He was only discharged from hospital 6 weeks ago after a month’s stay and a major operation, he’s no longer feeling unwell. But he’s adamant and my father wants to obey instructions despite my misgivings.
So after 5 hours he’s finally admitted to a ward, where we wait for the bed – that he doesn’t need - to be made up. He’s feeling right as rain – not in any pain at all. It turns out they’ve admitted the self-labelling ‘bed blocker’ to take his blood pressure once a day and monitor his wee. We know perfectly well that having endured a major operation only recently his consultant is very reluctant for any further invasive surgery, that they would only conceive of doing it if he was in agony, so the only treatment on offer for his pancreatitis if it were to be bothering him is painkillers. The ward sister questions why he’s been admitted 'he’s not ill’ and I agree with her. On Monday, as soon as his Consultant’s seen him he’s discharged.
I can’t for the life of me see how any of the involvement of the hospital was beneficial to a lonely 87 year old man recovering from major surgery and living with a number of chronic conditions. Thankfully, my father says he’s learnt a lesson – he should not rush off to A & E unless he’s got a life threatening condition or in agony. I advise him – as I did on the Friday afternoon, to treat it like a migraine – take a couple of painkillers and go to bed and see how you feel in the morning. But I think his being alone, without the reassurance of my Mother has made him less resilient and more liable to panic. And I think having been in hospital for so long its pattern of life holds some vague allure of safety, like the ex-prisoner missing the routines of prison.
I shall be firmer next time.
In the weeks since, he’s had his usual multiple letters from the hospital demanding his presence for blood tests or appointment at different locations for unspecified purposes. We follow up. One is for follow up on his operation, another for his gall stones. Both are with the same Doctor but on enquiry the hospital insists he needs to attend each separately little understanding that every trip is a major undertaking for a frail and anxious older man.
The latest communications: – 3 letters arrive in two days altering the time of the same appointment on 5th May from 4pm, to 11am to 2.30pm. If only someone in the hospital could experience what it’s like to receive their service! It’s communicating, but maybe not the messages they’d like!