I was exhausted. My feet ached as I wildly paced up and down the hospital corridor looking for a free computer to work on. Nope, all busy. Fine, I thought. I’ll do the blood test I need to do. I started riffling through the drawers, looking for needles and vacutainers to take blood. None. Fine, I thought. I’ll search the ward next door.
Several hours later I had worked my way through my list of jobs and has one thing left to do. My shift had ended 30 minutes ago, and yet, I thought, perhaps this was the most important job of all. The funny thing was, this job didn’t require a doctor or a nurse, just a human.
The job concerned a long-term patient, let’s call him Liam. Liam had been in hospital before I’d arrived, and so I’d known him for many weeks. Every day I’d approach his bed with my heart sinking. An NG tube dangling from his nose, his dark brown eyes were fixed on the wall in front of him. His hands were stiffly on the arm of his characterless hospital chair. The four walls around him were his chamber and had been ever since he’d suffered the stroke that brought him to hospital. He didn’t have to tell me just how down he was. It was written all over him.
Strokes are funny things; they can take so much from a person beyond just their ability to move. Already frail before his stroke, Liam was now plunged into a world I couldn’t understand. I had seen him with a speech and language therapist, let’s call her Jane, who was brilliant. Jane explained to me how Liam no longer understood visual stimuli. He could look at a pen and knew to write with it but didn’t know what it was called. Though he could write, he couldn’t read or even recognise his own writing. On top of this, his ability to complete tasks with multiple steps had evaporated. Ever British, one of the hospital tests for this is to make a cup of tea. Although physically able to, Liam couldn’t get through it.
One day, I walked in and Liam looked a little brighter. His NG tube was finally gone and he looked a bit different. As I talked through his progress with him, he fell suddenly silent.
‘I… I should like to see my wife again. Before we both go.’
And with that, my job was to find Liam’s wife – another inpatient – , to track her down, and to take him to her. I found her a 20 minute walk away through the hospital on another ward, hooked up to a drip. She has her own medical demons to fight and didn’t have much longer to live. Neither had seen each other for weeks.
Organising the meet-up was a right faff. Porters, ward-clerks and nurses on both the wards needed to be consulted with. I needed to make sure Liam would be safe all the way to his wife’s ward, whilst there and back. I needed to make sure he didn’t just get stranded in the hospital somewhere. I needed to make sure she actually wanted to see him too. I needed to make sure Liam was safe to sit, that he’d been to the toilet, that he wouldn’t miss his medications or a meal.
It was now an hour and a half past my shift ending, and my partner questioned my motives. ‘This is very valiant of you Charlotte, but there’s a limit. Surely somebody else can do this’ he messaged. But, if not me – then who? Could I stand to go home when this man might never see his wife again? Especially when she was literally in the same building. What if this was their only chance to see each other again? I briefly thought of what I would give to see those who I’ve lost again, even for 5 minutes, just one conversation – what would I give?
With the help of our ward-clerk and a healthcare assistant, we assisted Liam into a wheelchair. We swung out of his, bay, through the manic beeping chaos of the ward, and out onto the cool, quiet stairwell. Into the lift.
I saw Liam gaze at himself in the mirror. I will never forget that gaze – I can’t explain it. A mixture of recognition and hope, but also as though he was perceiving something totally alien. He reached up to his hair and nervously patted it, slightly neater. Rearranged his dressing gown. Straightened his hospital pjamers.
The hospital atrium was large and quiet. Almost like a cathedral at night. I pushed Liam along its length in silence, the wheelchair rattling slightly over the flagstone floor. Up into another lift, and another short walk, and we were there. I spotted Liam’s wife, her eyes shone. She leant forward across her bed to Liam and reached forwards. I wedged Liam’s wheelchair right next to her bed facing her.
And with that, I left. I spoke the nurses, ensured that Liam would be safe on this ward, and that a plan was in place for his care and for his return to the stroke ward.
Such a simple thing to do, such a small task. The truth is everyone in the NHS is desperate to do things like take Liam to his wife. But with so few staff, with so few services, it’s becoming impossible to even take patients to their scans, to take patients to the toilet, to provide basic care needs. The one thing we set out to do – provide care and humanity – is slipping away from us.
Names, places and details were changed to keep anonymity