Last night I slept for just 45 minutes (in snippets, broken by abrupt announcements over a Tannoy). Between 7pm and 7am I ate just one packet of crisps, drank one tepid cup of tea and juggled the emotional and medical needs of an overwhelmed, under-napped toddler.
I spent 12 hours in the paediatric A&E of my local hospital and it was, in all honesty, a pretty hellish experience. But here’s the thing. Right now, I am looking forward to climbing into my bed this evening and forgetting all about it. Meanwhile, the junior doctor who looked after us and countless other families is gearing up to do it all over again. Here is what I would like to say to her. It is what I should have said when we parted ways in the early hours of this morning.
I’m sorry. I am the woman who showed up at your desk at the reception of paediatric A&E at 1.30am this morning. The one holding the hysterical toddler, both of us gulping back huge shaky sobs.
NHS 111 — the non-emergency health advice service — had sent us to hospital with a mysterious, non-blanching rash on my two-year-old’s legs. They booked us in with the GP at 7.20pm. At around 8pm, we saw him and he referred us to you. ‘They say it could be a three-hour wait,’ he said, smiling kindly, ‘but it won’t be, honestly.’
At 8.45pm the waiting room was calm. There were only a few other families there. We saw the nurse within 30 minutes. Things were looking hopeful. Then the room began to fill up. A public announcement explained that the average wait was now four hours. It was hot and stuffy in the room. A little boy was slumped in the corner holding a balloon — as he had left his own birthday party, a cyclist had ridden along the pavement and struck him without stopping. He had a gash on his forehead and a frightened, pale face. A nine-day-old baby coughed and rattled through a nest of blankets in his father’s arms. The children began to get hungry and tired. We went into the corridors to get food and found only vending machines offering crisps and sugary sweets.
I used my phone to top up our ticket for the hospital car park. Then I did it again, and again. Around midnight, the room was packed and another announcement explained that the average waiting time was now over five hours. Tempers began to fray. Word went round that there were only two paediatricians staffing the whole of kids’ A&E that night.
Overtired children began to arch their backs and wail. Parents started to mutter. A mother shouted. Her daughter had had a tonsillectomy less than 24 hours ago in the very same hospital. She had been discharged with morphine. It wasn’t touching the sides of the pain. She was five years old and had been waiting in A&E for five hours already. Didn’t they know she was at high risk of infection, sitting in a room surrounded by sick people?
By the time I found you at the reception desk, I had been in the hospital for six and a half hours. I had read every storybook in the play corner cover to cover, to half a dozen or more children I had never met before. I had shared my single packet of crisps with a pack of hungry toddlers, sung songs to them, shushed and cuddled the children of strangers. There was a kind of Blitz spirit between the families. But by the end of the night even that faded and we sat in hollow exhaustion. And when I could no longer soothe my hysterically overtired child on my own, I went to ask for help.
I found you at the reception desk. Around you, all hell was breaking loose. Sick children were wheeled past, over-wrought parents (yes, me included) were demanding answers. Ambulance and policemen waited for more. And there you were, in the middle of it all, typing out your last patient’s notes before taking on your next. You were young, probably in your early 30s, a registrar. As such, you must have been on a salary of between £30,000 and £40,000 (excluding overtime and a London adjustment). In return for which, last night, you were taking responsibility for dozens of lives. It looked as though you were single-handedly marshalling an army in a battlefield.
Through the blue curtain that separated my daughter and I from the many other families you cared for last night, I heard you deal with some of the most emotive medical emergencies a doctor can face, in some of the tiniest patients. I heard you being clinician, therapist, diplomat, coach and manager. I heard you handle the fears of children and of parents with patience and empathy, the demands of social services and the police with quiet authority.
Right there, surrounded by chaos, you were not only taking medical decisions, but making calls about the futures of tiny people. And as your cup of tea turned cold for what must have been the 20th time that night, you did it calmly, conscientiously, with scrupulous politeness and humour.
We left at about 7.30am, the time your shift finished. And as I clipped my healthy daughter into her car seat (after an untroubling diagnosis of suspected HSP), I saw you walking towards the bus stop with a colleague. You put your arm round her. Still caring, even off the clock.
I’m going to get some sleep now. You’ll be off to do the whole thing again. Good luck, and thank you.