Becoming the patient

I’ve been fortunate for most of my life to be pretty healthy. Even having my two children only resulted in one night in hospital for my first birth. So, my recent three nights in hospital came completely out of the blue: I’m the person who cares for others but this time I needed care myself.

Tonsillitis became a peritonsillar abscess, via an allergic reaction to penicillin, resulting in two visits to Accident and Emergency with the second one keeping me in hospital for three nights. Never have I been more appreciative of the NHS, and whilst the media is awash with stories of hospitals stretched to breaking point and staff on strike I want to share the amazing work that is still going on despite all of the huge challenges that exist.


Having an allergic reaction is scary

My first hospital visit was when my body started to swell up as a result of penicillin my GP had given me for tonsillitis. I’ve had penicillin before and been fine, but this time my body wasn’t having it at all. For anyone reading this who has had an allergic reaction you’ll know it’s scary. Not only were my hands, arms and face swelling, my already swollen throat was swelling too, and by the time I got to hospital I had a rash from the top of my head to my thighs, plus chest pain.

The nurse on the check-in desk immediately got me into the treatment room, and numerous tests were run before I was put on a drip. The relief as the IV antihistamine calmed everything down was immense. I left the hospital with different antibiotics and instructions for what to look out for should my throat condition worsen.


Going back… and having the courage to stay

Sadly, less than two days later and after an awful sleepless night my pain and swallowing problems has worsened. Back in Accident and Emergency, this time on a Sunday afternoon, my initial experience was very different. The nurse on the check-in desk suggested I go home, take my antibiotics and wait to get better. Feeling horrendous, but almost too weak to argue, I was really in two minds. Was she right? Should I just do that? But something nagging away in my head said no: This didn’t feel like any illness I’d had before. I hesitated, said something about the pain being worse than childbirth (after 5 days of it, it was), and she agreed I could be booked in to wait for obs and see a doctor.

I waited about 2.5 hours to see a doctor, and throughout that time I doubted myself. Should I really be there? Was I one of those NHS timewasters that I’ve spoken and written about? Was I over-reacting to my symptoms? Would the doctor say the same as the nurse on the check-in desk and be annoyed with me? My mind was awash with anxiety and illness – I repeatedly suggested to my partner that we leave. Then something lovely happened – Aaron, a softly spoken Irish doctor, called my name and apologised for keeping me waiting.

We went into a cubicle, Aaron sat on the bed next to me and he listened. He cared. He understood. He said he could see I was in pain and he wanted to help. He got me started on some IV antibiotics, pain relief and called ENT. The next few hours were a haze of waiting for the specialists, then a needle aspiration, endoscopy and CT scan.

Before I got to my room on the ward, Aaron came to see me. He’d read the updates on my notes, so he knew what was happening. We got chatting and it turned out that it was only his fourth shift as a junior doctor in that Accident and Emergency department and it hadn’t been an easy one (I doubt they ever are). I thanked him for listening to me, for caring, and for getting me the expert help I needed. An amazing medic working in the eye of the storm, and I’m so glad I got to see him.


Being an inpatient

Staying in hospital was uncharted territory for me. I think I ended up with about 15 stab wounds between the IV drips, blood tests and five needle aspirations. Every staff member I met was so kind, helpful and reassuring. A special mention must go to my team of doctors, led by their consultant Dr Rob who I just loved watching as he taught his students. I learnt so much from his teaching style – If you’re a student in one of my training sessions in the future, you can expect to hear a phrase I told Dr Rob I was going to borrow: “Tell me something that the previous person hasn’t said.”

The last place I visited in the hospital was the discharge lounge. Having been in my own room on the ward I hadn’t seen many other patients, so it was really interesting from a work perspective to see quite a few older people who were going through the discharge process. I noted how kindly a nurse spoke to an older gentleman who was anxious to contact his daughter, and an older lady who wanted to talk to her son had a similarly sympathetic interaction with a staff member. HCA’s were gently supporting people to get to the toilet, or carefully gathering up patient’s possessions when their hospital transport arrived.

Of course I never knew the reasons for these people being in hospital or what their health status was, but I think dementia was part of the equation for some of them and the staff in that busy area had clearly been trained and interacted well with all of the patients I saw.


Lessons I’ve learnt

So why share all of this? Much like the reason I began D4Dementia (to help people learn from my dad’s life with dementia), there is learning from my recent experiences that might help someone else. So, in no particular order, my takeaways would be:

  • Without health you have nothing.
  • When it’s a genuine emergency, seek help (and I hope you can get the help you need – I appreciate I was very lucky to be seen relatively quickly).
  • Be kind. Healthcare staff are under phenomenal pressure. They are doing their best and waiting is inevitable.
  • Say thank you. I thanked everyone I met. From the healthcare staff to the porters who wheeled me around, the cleaners who emptied my bins and the catering staff who asked for my menu choices. If you can speak, share a bit of gratitude.
  • Embrace multiculturalism. I met staff from numerous different countries and it was so interesting to hear their stories. Our NHS would not exist without these individuals bringing their skills and expertise to our country.

But most importantly of all:

  • Trust your instincts. This is even more important if you’re advocating for someone else (a family member or through your work as a social care professional). If you feel something isn’t right from a health perspective, like I did on that Sunday when I went back to A and E, see it through. I could have easily gone home as I sat there questioning myself. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Until next time…

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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