A Day on a Hospital Trolley

Even though he’s a fictional character, GP Geoff is not so very different from most other medics. If he needs to see a doctor, all he does is look in the mirror.

hospital entrance

But the swelling and dragging sensation in his left groin have become hard to ignore, and today he’s going into the Day Surgery Unit of his local hospital. Hernia repair used to mean a sizeable incision and several days in hospital, but, with keyhole surgery, Geoff will be home the same day.

About 90% of operations are now done as day case surgery. Beds are as rare as unicorns, thinks Geoff as he meets Cecil, the day care nurse who’s looking after him today.

Today Geoff doesn’t get a bed, just a trolley on a six-bedded ward. If a patient turns out not to be fit to go home the same day after all, then he gets to stay overnight. On that same trolley.

Geoff has been qualified just 15 years and already things have changed beyond measure. Or have they always been like this for patients?

surgical dressings

A junior surgeon pops round with a consent form, then the anaesthetist visits. Geoff is distracted by her dazzling smile, her shock of red curls, but mostly by her multiple nasal piercings. What happens when she has a cold?

“With modern anaesthetic drugs,” she tells him, “you wake up so clear-headed that you can do The Times crossword.”

Which is wonderful because Geoff’s never been able to do The Times crossword.

He won’t get a pre-med, which is a shame. It used to be the best thing about having surgery, but there’s no scope for such things on the day surgery conveyor belt. Besides, Geoff needs to be in charge of his feet, because, when he’s changed into a flimsy gown and paper underpants, a nurse takes him for a long trek to the operating theatre. He hopes he doesn’t run into any of his patients.

Geoff meets the consultant surgeon for the first time in the anaesthetic room. He’s more Doogie Howser than Dr Finlay. Geoff resists asking if his mother knows where he is.

scalpel

When it’s all over, he can hardly feel he’s had anything done, but he’s lying in a large well-lit room where a nurse is telling him to drink. He had not realised he was clutching a small Styrofoam cup.

Back on the Day Surgery Unit, Nurse Cecil checks his pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen saturations every half hour, and reminds him to eat and drink. There’s an obligatory six hours before he can go home. There’s also the requirement to consume the tea and roast beef sandwich placed next to him.

The man on the neighbouring trolley is smiling at a film on his iPhone. Geoff can’t see the man opposite, as his girlfriend is busy delivering a prolonged post-op snog.

Geoff decides against powering up his phone. The pre-op instructions were clear: do not do anything important in the next 24 hours. The last thing he needs is a spirited twitter exchange with one of those anti-vaccine types.

Geoff doesn’t have a newspaper so he can’t test the anaesthetist’s promise. He brought the latest British Medical Journal, but he doesn’t much feel like it now. Or the sandwich. 

British Medical Journal

The patient by the window has already regained his appetite, judging by the takeaway his family brought in. The red and white packaging is already open, filling the ward with the heady aroma of grease, along with 17 different herbs and spices.

Eventually Geoff does what’s required of him: drink, eat, and pass urine. Post-op pain is breaking through by the time he gets to the tiny WC, where someone has already hosed down the floor.

In the corridor, one of the female patients is asking Cecil where she can find a nurse, oblivious of the fact that she is speaking to a nurse. “I’m a nurse,” says the nurse. The patient’s face is blank.

Finally Geoff goes home with a paper bag. It has spare dressings, a packet of painkillers, and instruction leaflets on not picking your scabs.

There’s supposed to be a responsible adult with him for the first 24 hours at home. Geoff, who’s single, fibbed about that bit. Luckily nobody checks, and he absconds in an Uber.

Nothing will go wrong, Geoff tells himself. Aside from the little lie he told the hospital, he plans to be a good patient and take careful note of all the instructions. At first, he is a little confused by the stated telephone times.

Then he realises it’s exactly like Sainsbury’s, trolleys and all.

 

Geoff lives in North London where he looks after patients, longs for a meaningful relationship, and rants about the NHS. You can find out more about him and his life in the pages of Hampstead Fever.

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A Christmas Gift for Syria

For two weeks now, I’ve felt proper sorry for myself, wallowing in a sea of tissues with a voice that’s no more than a croak and a brain that’s as sharp as blancmange. The world can feel like it’s ending when you run out of LemSip, and neither husband nor cat will get near you for the stink of menthol and eucalyptus.

symptomatic relief for a cold

Then I turned on the TV.

After six years of war, the humanitarian situation in Syria is catastrophic. Hospitals and medical staff have been deliberately targeted. It’s a war crime, and it has left hundreds of thousands of civilians without access to medical care, even as the bombs rain down.

There is no children’s hospital left in Eastern Aleppo, and about 250,000 people are estimated to be without medical care.

But that could change by Christmas.

The People’s Convoy is crowdsourcing funds to build an urgently needed new children’s hospital. Dr Rola Hallam, a UK-based doctor (founder of CanDo and previously headed Hand in Hand for Syria), launched the campaign a few days ago. Here’s a piece from Channel 4 News which includes her interview. 

Laden with supplies for the new children’s hospital, the convoy will set off from London on Saturday 17th December for a seven-day overland journey arriving in Turkey. There it will meet the Independent Doctors’ Association (IDA), the Syrian medical/humanitarian organisation that is still operating in Northern Syria. 

incubator

The supplies will then be used to refit an existing building as a new hospital, which will be the first crowdfunded hospital in the world. It’ll be in the countryside north of the city, and will serve 185,000 people.

The convoy is a collaboration of leading medical relief agencies, humanitarian organisations, medical workers’ associations and campaign groups, including Medics Under Fire, the Independent Doctors’ Association, Physicians for Human Rights, Doctors of the World, and the Syrian American Medical Society, as well as Rola Hallam and David Nott, considered one of the world’s most experienced war surgeons. 

While governments fail to resolve the crisis, people can act, and you can help right here: The People’s Convoy.

You can keep up to date with the campaign and the convoy here: CanDo.

doctor examining baby

This is more than a convoy of medical supplies. It’s a convoy of hope, sending a strong message of solidarity and support to courageous Syrian medical and relief workers, telling them that they aren’t forgotten or alone.

It’s also a convoy of defiance: a strong message that humanitarians and human rights’ advocates will not be silenced or stopped from their life-saving work.

Please help spread the word, and give what you can to the People’s Convoy.  

It’ll do far more good than a box of tissues.

FreeImages.com/T. Al Nakib

December 18 update:

If you’ve already donated, thank you very much. The campaign exceeded its target, and the convoy left central London yesterday, as you can see in this piece from today’s Sunday Times.

What Happens When You Become a Doctor

Any day now and it’ll be the Killing Season, so-called. August 1 is the date when a fresh crop of newbie doctors arrives on hospital wards, bursting with enthusiasm and theoretical knowledge but woefully lacking in experience.

Jeremy's scalpel

In fact August is no longer worthy of that macabre tag. The month now begins with a sensible induction process for newly qualified doctors, with proper training in the tasks and procedures they’ll need to do in the coming months. Gone are the days of ‘See one, do one, teach one.’ The Killing Season is well and truly dead. Induction is a recent trend. I will never forget the utter panic on my first day as a doctor as I crept around in squeaky new shoes trying not to look like the rawest recruit. It was a Sunday—was there ever a more stupid day to start work?—and a patient had the misfortune of dying within 45 minutes of my arrival at the hospital. Now don’t jump to conclusions. I hadn’t even seen her before she died.

HP Rapaport Sprague stethoscope, circa 1981

HP Rapaport Sprague stethoscope, circa 1981

Wet behind the ears, I had no idea of the procedure to follow. Even scarier was the realization that I had two whole wards full of people to keep alive as long as possible. I rushed round to say hello to them all and check they were still breathing. At the same time, I said goodbye to many things: sleep, leisurely weekends, sitting on the loo without being bleeped. In short, to normal life. iv nutrition

While a lot has changed since then, including working hours, some things haven’t, as I realized from a recent blog post by Salma Aslam (by which I mean Dr Salma Aslam) Transitional state: med student to doctor It all came back to me. When you graduate from medical school, you may get a number of different reactions. 1 “Well done, but don’t go round thinking you know it all.” Don’t worry, I didn’t. And still don’t. 2 “So what?” That’s what I got from a group of arts students sitting around in the bar. They acted like they couldn’t care less about my news, but they were probably envious. 3 “Can you have a look at my verruca?”

plantar warts

Count yourself lucky. It’s much worse to be subjected to the long saga, in multiple episodes, of their entire medical history. This is when you get envious of those jobless arts graduates. 4 “The only thing that works for my migraines/arthritis/autism is kinesiology/homeopathy/acupuncture.” The implication is that allopathic medicine does nothing. Well, I’ll keep an open mind about that, only not so open that my brain falls out.

tablets

5 “You should get a job as a medical adviser on Casualty or something.” Yeah, right. Like nobody else with more experience wants to do it. 6 Perhaps the weirdest reaction was from my mother, who insisted I should now call her Dr Cooper. Why? “Because my daughter is a doctor, it’s like I’m the doctor. You may congratulate me now.” Get used to all of it. It may be a while before you hear the most welcome response of all: Thanks, doc. I feel a lot better.”

medical bag

Easy tweet: What happens when you become a #doctor? http://wp.me/p3uiuG-12N via @DrCarolCooper #medicine

Six Lessons from the Eye Clinic

Today Sanjay takes his mother to her hospital appointment.

He’s a nice young man, a character from my novel One Night at the Jacaranda. Although I made Sanjay up, maybe you know someone like him?

He and his mother walk past a sign warning of the symptoms of Ebola.

Not surprising the font on the sign is massive. This is the eye clinic.

1138666_78954230 medical eye

The morning is a learning curve. They arrive at 9.30am to find there are over 40 patients there already.

Beta, I should have brought chair from home,” says Mrs Shah. Here comes Lesson One: in addition to bringing glasses (including bifocals), appointment letters, and any medication they are taking, in original containers, patients should bring something to sit on.

The only empty seat belongs to a man who’s just gone to the loo, which doesn’t flush, as he explains to all and sundry on returning to waiting-room.

A poster on the wall advises patients that clinic visits can take up to four hours. The notice on a board by the receptionist says the clinic is running 90 minutes late. Sanjay isn’t sure if this time should be added to the four hours, or whether it is already part of it. Nobody knows. Lesson Two: don’t ask stuff. Just accept it may take some time.

They stand in the corridor for a while.  A nurse emerges from somewhere and calls out, “Philip Nutmeg” or something similar. When Mr Nutmeg fails to respond, she says it again, looking meaningfully at Mrs Shah. Sanjay says helpfully, “She’s not Philip Nutmeg.”

The nurse glares at him.

Frame on eye chart

Eventually Sanjay’s mother is summoned into a little room to have her vision tested by another nurse, and to learn Lesson Three: computerised medical records do not necessarily contain any medical records. The entire hospital went computerised two months ago, this nurse says, but there are no clinical data on them. So Mrs Shah gets to recite her entire medical history. She looks over the nurse’s shoulder to make sure she writes everything down.

When they come out again, a cleaner in a hijab is here to deal with the loo. And Philip Nutmeg still hasn’t shown.

Lesson Four: nobody gives old people a seat, not even when they are rubbing their knee and looking around hopefully.  It shocks Sanjay that not one person has stood up for his poor old mother.  He considers ejecting someone forcibly, but then his mum isn’t as old or as poor as some of the others.

In the corridor there are two wheelchairs blocking doorways. In one, a woman with one leg. In the other, a man (or possibly a woman). This person has two legs, but Sanjay is not sure about the face because it’s covered with a blanket.

There’s also an old man pushing out some zeds and a younger man who reeks of alcohol. It is 10.45am.

Sanjay notices a woman with a pinched face and a jute bag bearing the name of a firm of solicitors. The doctors will love that, thinks Sanjay.

One of the doctors appears now to find out what’s wrong with the man with the blanket on his head. He insists there’s nothing wrong, but the light hurts his eyes.

Lesson Five, thinks Sanjay: bring dark glasses to the eye clinic because the lights can become unbearable once you’ve got dilating drops in your eyes. Now the man in the wheelchair is mighty pissed off because the doctor has asked him not to cover his head with the blanket. “It scares us, you see. We think something‘s wrong.”

Sanjay’s not so sure. He reckons you could die in the clinic and not be noticed.

The crowd eventually thins out and they get somewhere to sit.  Sanjay’s stomach is rumbling, and so is his mum’s. Lesson Six: bring something to eat.

989041_50471101 baguette

By the time they’ve been there three and three-quarter hours, Sanjay’s mother has had her visual fields tested and her corneal thickness measured, and her pupils look as wide as a dead cat’s. She’s also gone into the inner sanctum, where the consultant sits at a desk in front of a large cutaway diagram of an eye. This is worrying. Shouldn’t the doctor know what eyes looks like by now?

The medical verdict is not too bad. Mrs Shah’s eye pressure is fine today, and her cataracts don’t need doing yet.

Unlike a patient leaning on the front desk. There’s only one receptionist left, and this patient is pleading with her to expedite his cataract surgery because it’s very urgent. Unfortunately, the receptionist tells him he’s only on the routine waiting list.

By the time Sanjay and his mother leave, there’s just one man left in the waiting-room. Maybe it’s Philip Nutmeg.

1221586_15421511 nice eye

Hospital Tests: Has the Doctor Got it Right?

The department is in the bowels of the hospital. Appropriate, thinks Sanjay.

Sanjay is a character from my novel. I’ve let him out today for another hospital visit. There’ve been plenty of those in the last 18 months but today he’s got hope. He’s got hope the tests will be normal, and that he’ll be out of the door again before he loses the will to live.

As usual Sanjay passes the giant pebble on his way into the hospital. It is not a pebble so much as an expensive sculpture. Today it looks as if a dog has peed up against it.

UCL pebble

This hospital is one of the very few in the country that does this special ultrasound scan, a fact which pleased Sanjay’s mother. “See, beta? Now they know you are special.”

Not so Sanjay’s father, who took it as proof that bloody doctors don’t know what they are bloody doing and are just using his son as guinea pig.

One thing puzzles Sanjay: what is this scan exactly? He always asks questions but he’s rarely any the wiser. The doctors either reply something like “We’re going to take pictures of your squidgy bits” and give a smile that suggests he’s a couple of rungs below the village idiot.

Or else they give him a jargon-filled spiel, sometimes accompanied by a scribbled diagram on the nearest scrap of paper that comes to hand. surgeon's diagram

Once it said TOMATOES MILK WINE DRY-CLEANING on the back.

“Oh God, beta. Suppose they give you needles with this scan?” says his mum.

Sanjay shrugs. He doesn’t mind needles, but he’s not too fond of tubes up the behind. He had that once, when he’d passed some bright red blood. Luckily the test turned out normal.

He trusts the doctor who referred him for today’s scan. Just like he trusted the doctor who told him his colonoscopy was normal.

But what if the doctor had been wrong? And what if it wasn’t just the beetroot?

beetroot

Maybe the junior doctor had misread the result or had looked at someone else’s notes. Then Sanjay’s bowel cancer might go untreated, while someone else would get an abdomino-perineal resection that he didn’t need.

Abdomino-perineal resection: ‘complete surgical removal of the distal colon, rectum, and anal sphincter via simultaneous anterior abdominal and perineal incisions, resulting in a permanent colostomy’

a.k.a. ‘taking away some of your squidgy bits and popping your back passage onto your tummy’

Bummer.

Lots of people could be wrong a lot of the time, thinks Sanjay as he enters the revolving door. When you consider it, there are so many different ways of getting something wrong. But only one way (or at most a small handful of ways) to get it right.

Sanjay jabs the lift button and muses on his 36 years of life.

Just a Little Prick with a Needle

Today’s tests are no biggie. Nothing like the ones Sanjay’s had in the past. Anyway, he’s feeling better than in a long time.

There’s already a queue of blood test patients waiting to be interrogated at reception. You only get a numbered ticket once the bossy boots at the desk finds out if you’re fasting.

NHS

Sanjay gets number 79. The display on the wall says 46. No wonder the place is packed. Pretty soon he’s finished reading the Metro. So he reads people.

The girl next to Sanjay isn’t fasting. She’s shedding sugar from her donut all down her ample front. Fact: nobody who eats donuts ever looks as if they need to eat. And right under the sign that says no eating, drinking or assaulting NHS staff, a man is chomping into a burger. A ketchup sachet lies at his feet.

The plastic chairs are hard. Sanjay wishes he weren’t so skinny. There’s also a bench for urgent patients. The urgent patients look terrible, as if expecting to snuff it while waiting. He was on that bench not long ago, but now he’s been promoted from living dead to living living.

It’s number 67 now. The snoozing woman in the seat next to Sanjay wakes with a start when her walking-stick falls over. Walking-sticks always do. You’d think someone would design a solution.

Some people have brought their entire family, along with their shopping, scattered in carrier bags in and around the chair legs. A toddler with a cold studies Sanjay then removes his finger from his nose and wipes it experimentally on the arm of the chair.

The phlebotomist who finally calls Sanjay isn’t just a phlebotomist. The badge says he’s a cannula technician too. He is about 5’3” and one of his spots is threatening to erupt. He only opens his mouth to ask Sanjay to confirm his name and date of birth. Blood is taken wordlessly. It’s important to make patients feel at ease in today’s patient-centred NHS.

test tubes

Out Sanjay goes, clutching a cotton wool ball to the crook of his elbow.

The imaging department is at the other end of the hospital, down a draughty corridor guaranteed to give you double pneumonia if you don’t have it already.

Nobody’s eating in x-ray. They’re too busy figuring out how to sign in. For chest x-rays it’s straightforward because you can go anytime Tuesday to Friday from 9 to 11am and from 3 till 5pm. He doesn’t like to ask what the hell they do 11-3, not to mention all day Monday.

If you have an appointment, a state-of-the-art machine scans your letter. If you don’t have an appointment, you go to the desk. There’s a third machine that dispenses numbered tickets.   A young man in a moon-boot is waiting patiently while someone tries to fix that one.

Sanjay hangs around the desk while a receptionist makes a hash of explaining a test to the patient in front of him.

Finally Sanjay is told “Take a seat and you’ll be called by your name.” He thanks his lucky stars he’s called Shah, not something like Sivaramalingham. He sits by a wall decorated with enticements to give blood, volunteer for the League of Friends’ shop, give up smoking for good, get help with your alcohol problem, report domestic violence, and donate your organs as soon as you finish with them.

There’s a lot more activity here than in blood-testing. For one thing, there are two calling systems. The staff have the knack of calling out a patient’s name at the exact same time that the automated system calls out numbers. Means nobody can hear either announcement, so patients keep getting up to ask what’s going on, then coming back to their seats, head shaking in disappointment.

One patient has got the system figured out. Now she’s giving out to all and sundry the phone number of the professor’s PA, which is, she reckons, the only way to get your x-ray done and have the results sent to your doctor in the same century.

Only the old man next to Sanjay is immobile. He’s wrapped in so many layers of woolly clothes that he has to sit bolt upright. Probably been wearing them a while, judging from the smell.

Sanjay needs the toilet but it’s out of order. This means a trek halfway round the hospital to find one that works. He could have just asked at the desk for a dozen specimen containers and filled those.

hospital gownFinally it’s his turn for x-ray.  

He is shown into a cubicle and handed a gown. Then he studies the grainy instructions on the wall.

Sanjay tries to tie it as per the picture, but fails. Ah. Two of the tapes are missing.   He goes into his x-ray bare-chested like Putin.

The radiographer tuts.

Two hours for two simple tests. Finally Sanjay breathes a sigh of relief and exits to the fresh air, rushing straight into a crowd of smokers by the revolving doors.

 

Next week it’s the London Book Fair. I look forward to meeting friends old and new, and reading an excerpt from my novel to fellow indie authors. I have yet to choose the passage, but you can bet Sanjay will be in it.

Germs and Geriatrics

She is asleep with her mouth open, so Geoff sits down quietly and watches for a bit. At 92 she still has some of her own teeth but the interior of her mouth has that glazed look that comes with age, and with candida.

Geoff is a GP from the pages of One Night at the Jacaranda. He can’t help making these observations.

Grandma stirs, and soon she’s sitting up yelling for the nurse.  “I’m in agony” she’s saying as she jabs the bell repeatedly.  “I’m in agony” she repeats to the rest of the ward.   The three other old ladies appear to have heard this before. 

Today Geoff had to put on a mask and gown before entering the ward.  Some nasty germs have been isolated on the unit, but high bed occupancy means it can’t be emptied and deep cleaned.  He’d asked a nurse which germs, and got a shrug by way of reply.

agar plates

The lunch tray arrives.  It looks vile, all that sloppy food designed to slip down elderly gullets.  “Feed me” demands Granny.

She watches Geoff with beady eyes as he spoons some of the beige slurry into her mouth.  That’s probably where the germs are, he thinks.   After a couple of mouthfuls Granny has had enough.  She’s staring at his head now.  “I like your hair” she says and reaches out to touch it.

She reminds him of Davey.  She might like to see her great-grandson again, but hospitals aren’t good places for 5-year olds, unless maybe they’ve got Henoch-Schonlein purpura.

There’s a miniature Christmas tree on the bedside locker. “It’s nearly February” Geoff points out.  “And you’re Jewish.” 

“I’m 95 now” Granny replies with impeccable logic. 

A nurse comes in, switches off the call button and offers Granny tablets for pain. Which Granny refuses, saying she’s fine.  

The nurse then rearranges things at one of the beds.  Geoff notices that she hasn’t bothered with a mask, gown or gloves.  She senses his stare and says “I’m not touching the patients.”  The nurse probably wouldn’t believe it if Geoff told her that viruses and bacteria can live on call buttons, beds and bedding. 

“The priest came to see me” Granny tells Geoff.

“Why, Grandma?”

“Because I’m getting married, of course. To Marvin.”

This is news to Geoff.  “Do I know Marvin?”

Granny swats at him with a bony hand.  “Of course you know him.  He sits next to me in class.”

She’s gone downhill faster than he thought.   Only last week Geoff was thinking of testing her with the SAGE questionnaire for cognitive problems.  He hasn’t used it on patients yet but it looks a useful test, with low false positives, and no copyright issues, unlike the MMSE.  But not much point trying it on Granny any more.   Although her mental state fluctuates from day to day, she seems proper demented now.  An MRI of her brain would probably look like cheese.

Swiss cheeseNow she says “Make me comfortable.” 

The nurse has gone, so Geoff tries adjusting the hospital bed.  It has lots of buttons.  Granny develops a liking for the buttons that controls the foot end.   

No harm in that, thinks Geoff.  After she raises and lowers the foot of the bed about a dozen times, he remarks that it’s just like a see-saw.

She gives him one of her stares.  “You’re really very stupid.”

Before Geoff leaves, he asks if Marvin’s going to visit.

“Who’s Marvin?” replies Granny.

elderly hands

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