Saturday, June 04, 2005


This blog post has been giving me trouble. I was going to write about the terrible state of Australian public hospitals, provoked by a visit my sister and her kids made to a local Emergency ward last night. I'll tell you that story in a minute, but first there's the small matter of working out what this post is about.

This afternoon I wrote a draft of the aforementioned hospital rant and then went for a walk with the dogs. But plodding along I realised the post made big generalisations based on not much at all. How would I know what's going on in hospitals? I don't, is the answer. Damn.

So I jotted down all the points I wanted to make, and wrote "Where's the angle?" (meaning Where's the story? What's my point?). But instead it came out as, "Where's the angel?" And that suddenly seemed like exactly the right question to ask. Where's the angel in this mess of notes, and in the situation? And I think now I can see it. I'll let you know at the end. Here's the story:

My niece, Surfergirl, was injured while playing sport last night, possibly breaking her leg (they still don't know). Her mum, J, took her to the local hospital. They arrived about 8:30pm, and, somewhat miraculously, Surfergirl was taken straight in and given a bed.

I say miraculously, because you usually need to go through several stages before you get to the Emergency ward itself. First you sit in the waiting room, then you go to the reception area, then you're transferred to Emergency (which at this hospital, and perhaps temporarily, is at a distance from the waiting room/reception area). There are not enough staff and too many patients, and it can take hours for a doctor to become available. If you go in seeking medical attention but are not close to death, there’s a good chance you’ll have to sit in the waiting room until you ARE close to death. J thinks that Surfergirl was given priority entry to the reception area (and allowed to bypass the waiting room) because it was obvious she'd need an x-ray, and the x-ray facility at this hospital closes at 9pm (please don’t break any bones after that hour, citizens).

Surfergirl's bed was in a cubicle, separated by a curtain from the desk and chairs in the adjacent cubicle, which is where a nurse interviewed patients before sending them back out to sit in the waiting room (Surfergirl having been given the only bed). There were 12 to 15 people waiting. (In the four hours Surfergirl was present, the four on-duty doctors – perpetually busy in Emergency – managed to see only two people.) Thanks to the superior sound-insulating abilities of the curtain, J and her kids could hear every word exchanged between nurse and patient during interviews in the next cubicle, and consequently know that in the waiting room sat:

- an elderly woman with a broken arm, shallow breathing, and the chance of heart problems. The nurse tried to arrange an ECG, ringing three or four times to request it. But when J and the kids left the hospital about 12:30am, the woman was still sitting in a wheelchair in the waiting room;
- a baby who had fallen out of bed and who screamed every time he/she was moved;
- a teenage boy who had been tackled while playing rugby, and who kept asked the same question ("Who won?"... which is kind of funny) over and over, despite knowing the answer and not being able to work out why he was asking;
- a person with burned arms, which a nurse finally (after some hours) dressed, despite having no authority to do so, telling the patient a doctor would probably be angry she'd intervened;
- a woman who had been vomiting all day;
- a woman who had been bashed by her husband, and was worrying about the kids she'd had to leave with a neighbour.

For most of the time there was only one nurse in attendance, and sometimes there was none. At one stage J had to take Surfergirl to the toilet and back unaided. It's not easy to lift an adult-sized person with possible broken leg up onto a bed; Surfergirl nearly fainted several times. J called out to ask for help from the receptionist but this was apparently against the rules of receptionist duties. (I suppose there's a reason for such a rule, but it's hard to see the justification for it in such circumstances.)

Surfergirl finally got to see a doctor about midnight. Leaving the hospital about 12:30 am, all of the above-mentioned patients were still waiting to be seen.

I don't know whether the chaos in this Emergency department is widespread in hospitals across the nation. I've heard people say it is, but maybe they don't know what they're talking about either. But in a sense it doesn't matter, because for the people dealing with this chaos every day, what matters is their own hospital, their own hours, their own duties and problems.

We're now getting to where I think the angel was in this situation. The nurse who'd almost single-handedly managed the waiting room/reception area had been run off his feet all evening, trying to find doctors and resources which were just not available. He'd been kind and helpful with everyone, over and over and over, accompanied by the sounds of the poor screaming baby in the waiting room. He had a jocular approach to the job and kept saying "Sweet!" and "Sweet, darl!" to everybody and everything, despite continual problems. Then towards the end of his working day (late at night) the phone rang and someone asked him to extend his shift. He told J later that he'd already worked a 20-hour shift this week, and the hospital was no more busy last night than it is any night.

After this phone-call he was cranky and upset, and took it out on the next patient he had to interview. But then, J said, she heard him sigh, as if he was pulling back from involvement in the situation, and then he was back to his previous light-and-breezy manner.

For me, that's where the angel was. In the midst of chaos, at the end of a too-long day which suddenly wasn’t going to end after all, trying to find the patience to deal with yet one more person in pain and in need of help, this man could focus. His job was to help this one patient, not worry about anything else. So that’s what he did.

He and his colleagues shouldn't have to contend with the hospital shambles that surrounds them. It's a disgrace. But day in and day out, they cope. They focus, and they go on. They save our lives and keep the world turning. Bless them. They're heroes.


J rang the hospital today to find out what's going on with Surfergirl's radiology report. It wasn't ready. I don't know how long these things usually take, but three days seems just a tad slow, in my opinion. They still don't know whether her leg is broken or not.

And here's my rendition of the exchange which then took place:

HOSPITAL PERSON: When the report's ready, it'll be sent to your GP [general practitioner], Dr T.
J: Sorry, who?
J: That's not my GP.
HOSPITAL PERSON: That's what it says on your file.
J: I've never been to a Dr T in my life.


Good news for Surfergirl: damaged ligaments but no broken bones. She and J arrived at their doctor's office yesterday afternoon to find that the radiology report STILL hadn't been sent through. Their doctor had to ring the hospital to have it faxed.