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Comment: In Homage to Our Hospital, My Unexpected Week as a Royal Surrey Patient

Published on: 20 Jan, 2021
Updated on: 21 Jan, 2021

The entrance to the Accident & Emergency department at the Royal Surrey County Hospital (Photo 2017)

By Ailsa Vincent

Monday, January 4, 5.20pm

In the dark, in the soft, gentle rain, I lie on the ground beside my car, considering my position. My mind is crystal-clear. That resounding snap was surely the bones attaching my foot to my leg? I can feel a slight reorganisation of my ankle and heel.

Nobody is likely to walk past in our quiet lane, especially not tonight as Johnson prepares to speak to the nation. Happy realisation: my mobile phone is in my pocket. “Tell Dad to come out to the car NOW.” The dog finds me first.

Ailsa Vincent

“Do NOT touch me!”

“But ….”

An ambulance could take ages. There are desperately ill people who need them. There are queues of ambulances waiting outside hospitals, allegedly.

In “The Revenant” style, I crawl on my knees round the car to the passenger door, horrified daughter and husband helping me on to the passenger seat. “A&E straightaway and as fast as you can.”

Clearheaded, I Google Royal Surrey, click the “phone now” symbol and I’m immediately connected to A&E. I explain my circumstances. “A wheelchair will be waiting but no one else is allowed inside.”

So I sit in the waiting room, masked, socially distanced. What a nuisance but maybe if they can get it in a plaster cast quickly I will get home tonight.

Pain rises. X-ray. CT scan. Covid swab test (negative). Diagnosis confirmed. Manipulation under anaesthetic. X-ray.

I am blessed with kind, efficient, knowledgeable doctors and nurses who treat me as if I am the most important person in the world.

Tuesday, January 5, 1.30am

I am admitted to Elstead ward. NBM (nil by mouth). Hospital days begin early. Awareness of immobilised leg in heavy cast dawns on me as daylight creeps in. One by one, I meet the international team of delightful people tasked with attending to my every need and who keep the ward an encouraging place to be.

Today I speak to more people than I have even seen since March 2020. Orthopaedic registrar explains that today I return for surgery and talks me through procedure. Well, perhaps I will get home tonight, otherwise tomorrow?

Staff nurse generously puts my dying phone on charge after I send text home requesting my toothbrush and charger. I am whisked away and enjoy surgical precedence for the one working lift.

“Just breathe in” No more 5-4….3…..zzzzz.

Wednesday, January 6

“Really, Pedro, I am no longer NBM.” I haven’t eaten since Monday lunch. I suddenly realise I have unintentionally kick-started a slimming regime and dry January.

Here, on this high-dependency ward, I am surrounded by very frail elderly ladies. I am probably 30 years their junior. (Elsewhere, my mother, 93, conscripts my brother into filial duties of shopping and gossip. She eagerly anticipates an immobile daughter with enforced leisure to play nonstop Scrabble.)

I watch in admiration the devoted care with which these ladies are tended. Bathing, massages, spoon-feeding, with soft words and coaxing. And then the physio team arrives, positive, dynamic with impressive mobile equipment.

All will sit up in chairs to ease pressure on delicate skin. One, a reluctant candidate for rehabilitation, is put through her faltering paces on a Zimmer frame, singing a chorus of a sea shanty to entertain me. I remain horizontal with a raised leg.

She is ready for a chat and after almost a year of solitude with no immediate family, she is comfortable and content to be surrounded by the ward family. But social services are desperate to sort out provision for her to leave.

I am consulted. “You could go home to wait but we advise you to stay so we can get you into surgery at short notice as soon as the swelling subsides sufficiently, without the problems of Covid screening and delays.” I look at the maze of mechanical scaffolding pinned into my leg and foot and find it an easy decision.

Thursday, January 7

What a night. Equipped with iPad, iPhone and headphones I try to make sense of events since I fell on Monday. UK total lockdown, increasing Covid deaths, NHS on the brink of collapse. Cause and effect seem hazy

But what is this? What is happening in Washington? Nothing coherent. Snippets of speeches, flags, rioters inside the Capitol. I stumble across a commentary by Michael Moore gleaned from a variety of sources. Another documentary I have missed? No, it’s actually happening in real-time. And I am lying in this dim-lit ward in the middle of the night watching events unfold.

As dawn breaks, the ward sister, a slip of a girl, refreshed after just 10 hours at home, tells me a meeting has been convened for all senior staff and she has to go. She has already been told she must anticipate younger patients than usual with mixed medical needs. Here I am.

But I have my own agenda, another X-ray in preparation for further surgery. I am given a mask. An outing, but no electric doors so I help to keep them open as I am trolleyed through. A wait beside the lifts, two of them still out of order but apparently the staff are used to that.

My circumstance takes precedence over another’s misfortune and into the lift we go. My wait is brightened by beautiful images of exotic places. I recognise the Lisbon roofscape. A radiographer is a keen amateur photographer and she had holiday snaps enlarged into posters to bring colour and interest into the department. Oh joy!

Friday, January 8

NBM. “No porridge for me,” I insist. If they fit me in I might get home today. They must be desperate to get me out. Tiny ward sister tells me not to be concerned. There will be sufficient staff to care for us but fewer than usual because it’s all hands on deck to rearrange the hospital. A whole floor is being prepared for Covid patients.

Tucked away in our calm sanctuary, it is just possible to hear the distant hubbub of instructions, beds wheeled and nonstop, bustling activity until the evening duty team arrives. Even then, the tiny ward sister does not leave until she has checked all is well, thanked the day team and welcomed the evening staff.

It has been a long day. I didn’t get to surgery. And happy day, social services were unable to sort a place for my neighbour, so she was looking forward to a weekend remaining with her new-found friends.

Saturday, January 9

Still NBM. Bom dia Pedro. Não porridge para mim. Pressure on the NHS is enormous, elective surgery cancelled. Today’s my big day. Alas, no. The cheerful but tired registrar arrives bedside as the afternoon wears on. Sorry, but we had some emergencies that couldn’t wait. You are at the top of tomorrow’s list, he assures me.

A kindly ward orderly goes to find soup. It was very nice tomato soup yesterday. NodealBrexitstockpileddriedvegetablesthatmustbeconsumedbeforesellbydate soup was, no doubt, nutritious.

Sunday, January 10

Yes, still NBM. In my sanctuary, there are some who have food but do not want it and here I am wanting food but insisting none is given to me because I am on the list.

As a result of ward reorganisation, I have acquired a chatty neighbour who doesn’t know why she is here. She is missing her friends from church. From our expansive windows, the cathedral of the Holy Spirit looms in the mist so I stream the morning service into our ward.

Sadly, not the top notes of the boy sopranos I used to teach at Lanesborough, but a rich sound melded from the socially distanced singers lifted by the fulsome notes of the organ. My neighbour is amazed and grateful.

I spend the rest of the day trying to teach her, over the gulf between us, both physical and metaphorically, how to answer her new smartphone. Interrupted only by the exhausted, apologetic registrar to break the news that emergency surgery would continue into the evening and they wouldn’t get to me.

Monday. January 11

No change. NBM. Tomorrow I will surely have porridge but not today. The morning passes. Social services have found a placement for my sea shanty neighbour and she waves her goodbye.

Surgery at last. As I am wheeled, masked, to wait at the lifts, still just one working. I descend into the bowels of the hospital. A narrow passage has been created between the double-banked towers of PPE that fill this underground labyrinth.

My X-rays are on the screen. I have learnt to recognise them. The anaesthetist is the only one who approaches me. I wave to the surgeons who acknowledge me with a distant wave and suddenly here I am in recovery.

It is late so I reconcile myself to another day in hospital and probably the one after that if I am ever going to manage to move with this great block of stone in which I am incarcerated.

But life is looking up, my new neighbour is younger than me, with stories to tell. And after months of isolation keen for a chat. She may even give me a few tips on online shopping that appears to be her passion.

Tuesday, January 12

Bom dia Pedro. Porridge faz favor. A note is slipped in front of me, >COVID + . Unspoken not to create alarm.

Staff withdraw as corridor doors swing shut. A skeleton staff wrap themselves in disposable plastic gowns and work on essential duties as the others observe from behind glass windows. All is calm, and quiet, and still. Staff are all sad. That Covid-stricken chatty lady is gently wheeled to a new ward, clutching her new smartphone.

Red posters go up on the doors. The ward is quarantined.

I know I must leave today. I understand the implications of Covid isolation and quarantine. I must make an escape plan. The lovely staff nurse reassures me, my new neighbour promises me more tantalising tales but I am determined.

The home front is made ready. I will go into the bedroom prepared in readiness should my mother ever deign to live with us. I talk my way past the orthopaedic houseman. They don’t need to see me for two weeks. Occupational health succumbs when I describe the perfect old lady set-up I have at home and they promise to put a toilet frame by the hospital front door with my name on it.

Back home, the view from my bed

Physiotherapy is trickier. There is no way I am going to pass the crutch proficiency test. But I argued, I don’t need crutches, I just need to get home, upstairs, and with a Zimmer frame I can get myself from bed to chair to dedicated loo. After all, I am not going anywhere or even seeing anyone for two weeks. Covid regulations.

I am coached to get up the house step, how to bottom-walk up the stairs and shuffle on the ground to get to the bed, how to lift myself up. Feeling so guilty taking someone away from the ward, I am wheeled in a chair to be handed over to my masked husband and, like the queen, I sit in the back of the car, surrounded by disabled aids. I am home.

Each day, I telephone my smartphone protégée to wish her well, but it only goes to voicemail.

My grateful and heartfelt thanks to the wonderful teams of doctors, nurses, support and ward staff at the Royal Surrey, especially those of Elstead ward, including the great civilian volunteers who attend to the other needs and wants of patients.

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test 2 Responses to Comment: In Homage to Our Hospital, My Unexpected Week as a Royal Surrey Patient

  1. Regina Redpath Reply

    January 20, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you, Ailsa Vincent, for such an informative, uplifting and heartfelt narrative of a jolly good time in Elstead Ward.

    Despite dodgy lifts, it clearly is a much-loved hospital with some outstanding teams delivering an exceptional service. So reassuring. Glad you are doing well and hope your smartphone neighbour is too.

  2. Susan Hibbert Reply

    January 24, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    I enjoyed your humorous and uplifting description of your Royal Surrey experience. It’s heartening to hear such stories amidst the general gloom and to read deserved praise for our hospital workers.

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