A year ago I was getting bright eyed and bushy-tailed because I was going to Sri Lanka. While I was away, an old and very dear friend was taken into hospital. He had fallen in the shower. A week later he returned home, only to slip and fall again. He sustained nothing more than severe bruising on both occasions, but on the second occasion, the hospital decided to keep him in for observation. When I arrived home in March, six weeks after my departure, I visited T in Llandough Hospital near Penarth, (its part of the University Hospital of Wales complex). On arrival at the geriatric ward, I was almost bowled over by the stench pervading the whole place and was less than impressed by the general air of grubbiness. Certainly not what I expected to find in any hospital, let alone a teaching hospital, but T was bright and able to chat. Still nothing had been discovered with regard to the cause of his falls, nor the reason why he could not remember falling. His diabetes was being controlled and he hoped to be home soon.
Except that he didn’t return home, so my next visit took place about three or four weeks later. When I arrived after the long drive from my home to the hospital involving one and a half hours of motorway driving in each direction, I was appalled to find him semi-conscious; in a cot with side-rails and attached to an intravenous drip. He had succumbed to some hospital infection. Over the next ten months, he held on to life; developed leg ulcers; was transferred to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff where his left foot was amputated; then was shuttled back to Llandough Hospital, and later to Barry Hospital from where he was ultimately discharged two weeks ago.
Now he is home, the full horror of his story is emerging. His daughter, upon asking the doctor when her father could go home, was rudely snapped at and told it was impossible to arrange a necessarily expensive care-package. T told how he and other patients would be left without even a cup of tea in the morning until ten o’clock. If they dared to ask a nurse for help or a cup of tea, they were shouted at and told that there was no time.
I visited T last Sunday at his daughter’s, where he is living. Already, the T whom we all knew so well is emerging from his traumatic experiences. He was sitting up in bed, clean and well groomed, just like the T of former times. Several friends and family members had visited during the preceding week. I learned he had been sent home in an ambulance, but without any medication. The local nurse who was waiting for him and now attends him twice a day, immediately volunteered to go to the hospital where she collected the medication that should have arrived with him. It was wonderful to see T tuck into one of his favourite meals while I was there. For the first time, I saw clean dressings on his remaining foot. The nurse deals with these and changes them regularly, while carers come in three times daily to help with his personal care.
His story reminded me of similar horrors I had witnessed while visiting my late aunt at the Heath Hospital about thirteen years ago. My cousin used to travel from Caerphilly, where she was a sub-postmistress, twice every day bringing what she knew her mother would eat and drink and to stay with her for the duration of each visiting time. On one occasion I visited too and was appalled at what I saw. Fortunately, my aunt was only there a short time because my cousin unceremoniously took her home when, on one evening visit, she found her mother in tears. She was ashamed to admit she’d soiled her bed. Having called and rung the bell in vain for a bed-pan, she had lost control. In a very short time my cousin had organised the staff into providing clean bedding, as well as washing and changing her mother. Then she announced to the ward-sister that she needed a wheel-chair and that she was taking her mother home immediately. The ward-sister once again became somewhat belligerent, but was soon subdued and made to understand that this decision was not negotiable.
Much of what I had witnessed I brought to the notice of the then, Minister of Health at the Welsh Assembly, Jane Hutt AM and her Deputy-minister John Griffiths AM, who had special responsibility for older people. My letter (of which I have a copy) was acknowledged, but my suggestion; that they visit incognito and without prior notice or the tell-tale presence of an entourage, to do a spot-check of the geriatric ward on Level 13 in the Heath Hospital and witness for themselves the neglect of the older patients, was not taken up. Now, in 2015, having seen for myself the state of geriatric wards in major hospital in Wales, I am tempted to say, despite all the current publicity and protestations of politicians – some things just do not change.