Jake O’Kane: ‘Our politicians have broken the NHS’

Jake’s painfully prolonged visit to A&E reveals the shocking state of our terminally neglected health service

Our hospitals are currently overwhelmed
Our hospitals are currently overwhelmed (Rawlstock/Getty Images)

I EXPERIENCE episodic bouts of severe pain due to a serious spinal injury sustained in an accident 46 years ago. I am forever grateful to the NHS who provided me with the medical help I needed at that time.

My consultant once joked I was the only patient he knew who qualified for a disability parking badge, but who wasn’t on some form of State benefits. I’ve achieved this by keeping myself as physically fit as possible, and although I’d love to be able to go out running, I’m content with being able to walk.

It was on one of my daily walks five weeks ago that I felt a twinge of pain in my lower back. As I was walking at a normal pace, I didn’t think too much of it, but over the next few weeks the ‘twinge’ turned into a debilitating pain running from my left hip down my leg, ending in a numbness in my toes.

Physiotherapy sessions and prescribed anti-inflammatory medications failed to work, and last Wednesday night the pain was so severe I was left writhing on the ground. The next day, I contacted the NHS Phone First service who, upon hearing my symptoms, instructed me to attend the Emergency Department.

I arrived at the Mater Hospital at 3.30pm on Thursday afternoon and was seen by a triage nurse one hour and 20 minutes later. I explained that sitting any length of time was both excruciating and impossible due to extreme pain, so was directed into a side corridor where I spent my time alternating between lying on seats, walking and sitting.

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Long waits in A&E are now the norm (Peter Byrne/PA)

What seemed an eternity saw afternoon slip into evening, and I began bumping into people I knew, and others who knew me. An elderly lady sitting opposite who’d arrived two hours ahead of me was waiting to be admitted for observations after having ‘a turn’. Recognising me, she said we’d lived only a street apart when I was a boy. After an enjoyable chat, she settled into her knitting while she waited for a bed.

From my corridor I could see into what had originally been designed as an intake ward for the Emergency Department, but was now operating as an inpatient ward. From its doors, an elderly gentleman suffering from some form of cognitive deficit was brought to a nearby toilet by a young nurse. I was struck by her patience and compassion as she remained upbeat whilst gently guiding him back to bed.

Not long after this example of humanity, a fight broke out at reception with two women screaming at each other. A passing intoxicated man surreptitiously informed me there was a TV around the corner if I wanted to watch the football. I thanked him but said I was happy where I was.

Chaotic scenes in the Emergency department are nothing new, unfortunately
Chaotic scenes in the Emergency department are nothing new, unfortunately (sturti/Getty Images)

An hour later, the same man reappeared with two women, one of whom accompanied him into the toilet. The elderly lady knitting opposite rolled her eyes: 20 minutes later, both reappeared, unkempt but content. Presuming their tryst had been carnal, I mentioned it to a security guard, who said they were more likely to have been drug addicts shooting up as, if they accidentally overdosed, they knew the hospital was the safest place to be.

At 12.30am, a full nine hours after I’d arrived, I decided to check with reception in case they’d forgotten about me. I was told that I was listed but not viewed as an emergency case: I faced a wait of at least another four to five hours before being seen by a doctor.

Now unable to lie down on chairs occupied by other patients and exhausted both physically and emotionally, I was forced to leave.

I want to be very clear; these observations aren’t meant as a criticism of the Mater Hospital or its staff. What I witnessed were medics overwhelmed by a demand they couldn’t meet, whilst being asked to do two or three times more work for the same pay.

Junior doctors in England have been on strike for five days
Junior doctors in England have been on strike for five days (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

The blame for our broken NHS - and make no mistake, it is broken - lies with politicians who, for decades, have neglected our health service. So, if our newly-elected MPs want to know the real state of the NHS, I suggest they follow my example and leave their plush offices, invest in a bus ticket from their £91,346 salary, and spend a day in their local Emergency Department.

There, they’ll see the best of people, doing their utmost to provide care despite operating in the worst of conditions.