Jake O'Kane: It's hard to be entertaining while worrying you're having a heart attack
The scene that greeted me as I walked into the Mater A&E could best be described as a film mash-up of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the first 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan
I’M AT an age where I find myself at hospitals much more regularly than I’d like, be it visiting my elderly mother who’s been in Antrim Area Hospital for almost two weeks or attending the Mater Hospital in north Belfast for a precautionary check-up myself last Monday afternoon.
While both NHS hospitals have A&E departments operating under extreme pressure due to staffing levels, my latest visit to the Mater was akin to visiting a triage centre in a war zone.
I was there because of chest pain. As I come from a family with a history of serious, sometimes terminal, coronary problems, a pain in my chest results in a coronary check-up in the Mater. I’ve been through it twice before, and took comfort from the fact it happened early afternoon on a Monday – surely it wouldn’t be too bad?
The scene that greeted me as I walked into the Mater A&E department could best be described as a film mash-up of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the first 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
One young man, who’d taken an overdose, sat in a wheelchair with a full sick basin precariously balanced on a knee. Two PSNI officers escorted an absconding patient back into the treatment area as I meekly whispered to the receptionist I was having chest pains.
The only benefit of a potential heart attack is there’s no initial waiting time. I was immediately brought for an electrocardiogram (ECG), followed by a chest X-ray and finally a battery of bloods tests. The initial speed is a false dawn as what follows involves waiting around for hours as your bloods are checked for indications of a cardiac incident.
I decided to wait in my car parked outside the hospital as the downside of being on TV is people in waiting rooms recognise you, and it’s hard to be entertaining while worrying you’re having a heart attack.
Two hours later, when I came in for my second batch of bloods, an already desperate situation had degenerated. Patients were sitting on the floor as all seats were either taken or had been vomited on. Now the walking wounded and suicidal were joined by men and women lobotomised by either alcohol, drugs or both, aimlessly wandering like extras out of a zombie movie.
My first batch of bloods still weren’t back, even though the turnaround is supposed to be an hour and a half – this was three hours later. The young doctor treating me was apologetic, despite me acknowledging it wasn’t his fault. He was further flustered when he couldn’t find a spare chair for me to sit on as he took my second batch of bloods. Sample taken, I hastily retreated back to my car.
On my way out I passed not one, but two, groups of police standing guard over either unruly or mentally unwell patients. Eventually at around 11.30pm – having first arrived at 5pm – I was given the all clear and allowed home.
None of this is meant as criticism of the heroic staff at the Mater. While in their care I was treated in a professional and courteous fashion by overworked doctors, nurses and reception staff. The problem is there aren’t enough of them to deal with the tsunami of patients, particularly those presenting with mental-health issues.
Hardly surprising when you consider north Belfast experienced the worst of the Troubles and is a hot-spot of socio-economic deprivation and unemployment.
Last Tuesday, a delegation of mental health professionals visited Westminster to highlight the peculiar problems faced by Northern Ireland regarding mental health and suicide. One startling statistic is that 4,500 people have died by suicide in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – that’s more than all the lives lost in the 30-year conflict that preceded it. The delegation pointed out that £50 million extra funding promised by government a year earlier for mental-health provision in the north has yet to be released.
What I witnessed last Monday would indicate already struggling A&E departments don’t have the capacity to deal with patients presenting with mental-health issues. While staff skip meal breaks to keep their fingers in the dam of misery, they’re only human, and I suspect burnout and turnover rates are high.
I am certain of one thing; my fellow patients wouldn’t give a damn if the signs around them were in Irish, Ulster Scots, or Urdu, so long as staff levels were adequate to deal with their problems.