“Piers, Mum’s had a heart attack…”
It was late in the evening of November 6 last year when my sister Charlotte phoned to relay the awful news.
Our 79-year-old mother Gabrielle had been admitted to our local NHS hospital with severe chest pains and tests had confirmed a heart attack.
At midnight, she was blue-lighted in an ambulance down to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton for urgent specialist treatment in their renowned cardiac care unit.
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Or that was the plan.
Instead, after being assessed on arrival in A&E, my mother was stuck on a trolley and put out in a corridor at 1 am to wait for a cardio bed to become available.
And that’s where she stayed, for nearly seven hours.
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I’ve heard a lot about the shocking state of our country’s accident and emergency departments, but it’s only when you have a loved one facing a potential life-or-death situation that the full dreadful reality becomes starkly, painfully obvious.
Charlotte was with my mother all through the night and grew increasingly horrified and appalled by what she witnessed, sending regular messages of stunned incredulity.
“It’s like a bloody war zone here!” she exclaimed at one stage.
“The whole of A&E is utter chaos. There must be 40-50 patients stuck on trolleys, every bay is three deep, and many are out in the corridors.
“Most of them are elderly, and alone, and many suffering extreme discomfort, crying out or vomiting. Old men are begging for bottles to pee in, it’s terrible!”
My mother’s blood pressure was raging dangerously out of control, and she was understandably terrified of what might happen to her, but she lay unseen and unchecked by any medical staff from 1-4 am.
That’s a very long three hours for anyone when they know they’ve had a heart attack and think they may be dying.
All the vending machines were also out of order, so no chance of even a comforting cup of tea or anything to eat.
At one stage, her heart monitor’s battery ran out, because there were no electric sockets near enough in the corridor to charge it, and 15 minutes passed before the monitor was replaced.
Then, later, the new one ran out of battery too, prompting another 15-minute wait. On both occasions, it was only noticed by Charlotte.
My mother found those pauses in her heart monitor working to be particularly scary, for obvious reasons.
Devices around other trolleys were going off all the time, most going unnoticed.
No blame should be attached to the beleaguered nursing staff, who were insanely busy all night and just couldn’t cope with the sheer volume of patients – and this wasn’t even the weekend!
Finally, at 4:20 am a medical registrar saw my mother, said her blood pressure was very high and would need medication to bring it down, and promised she’d be taken to the cardiac unit ‘shortly.’
Another three hours passed.
Again, extraordinarily, nobody else checked up on her. Not even to ask if she felt OK, or to see if she wanted water, or anything.
Every hour, my sister asked for the blood pressure meds – but none were given.
Meanwhile, the trolleys continued piling up in the corridors.
It wasn’t until porters arrived shortly before 8am that my mother was taken up to the cardiac unit.
‘The trauma was etched on her face’
Once there, everything changed, and she got outstanding treatment.
I arrived soon afterwards and can attest that the care she – and all the other patients up there – received from everyone in the unit was kind, solicitous, and supremely efficient.
But the trauma of what my mother had endured in A&E was etched all over her exhausted face.
As I told Rishi Sunak, this is a woman who’s worked very hard all her life, and paid all her taxes, and has always been a huge supporter of the NHS.
But nobody, let alone an elderly lady, should be stuck on a trolley in a public corridor for seven hours after having a heart attack in modern Britain.
It’s undignified, degrading, unsettling, and frightening.
Yet hundreds of thousands endure this madness every year, and many don’t survive it.
Recent NHS England figures revealed that a staggering 420,000 patients had to wait more than 12 hours on trolleys in A&E last year, a 20% increase on 2022.
It is also by far the highest number since records began in 2011, when then Prime Minister David Cameron vowed: “I refuse to go back to the days when people had to wait for hours on end to be seen in A&E… so let me be absolutely clear: we won’t.”
And the Health Service Journal estimated that long waits in A&E caused up to 30,000 deaths from April 2022 to July 2023.
Thankfully, my mother didn’t end up being one of those grim, inexcusable statistics.
She was swiftly taken to surgery, given a stent to fix a 99% blocked artery which had sparked the heart attack, and was back home within 48 hours and is now making a good recovery.
‘Rishi has failed – it’s now down to him’
She experienced the worst and then the best of our NHS.
At its best, it’s a magnificent service full of incredibly skilled people that should make all of us extremely proud.
But the massive ever-increasing waiting lists for treatment – 7.6 million and rising – and the terrible state of our A&E departments, are a shameful disgrace.
A year ago, the Prime Minister pledged to cut waiting lists in 2023 and to take “urgent action” to sort the A&E mayhem.
He has failed to do either and must do better if he wants to win the next election.