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Sunday, December 11, 2011

It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now ...

So Wednesday found me sitting glumly in A&E with my dear old mother. You might think that a Wednesday lunchtime would not be the busiest time for such a department but, on this occasion at least, you would be mistaken. It took well over an hour to get to see the triage nurse. We were there six hours in all, the last couple of them parked in the plaster room next to an elderly lady waiting to be taken back to her nursing home by ambulance. Mother was finally admitted to a surgical ward and I got to go home to sort things out.

You may not have had the misfortune to have to attend A&E. It's nothing like Casualty on the TV. There are no dashing doctors and nurses squeezing in hectic love-lives and intrigue between charging the paddles, intubating patients and setting up the machine that goes 'ping'. The A&E staff move in a determinedly measured way. I realise now that this is a tactic. Nobody wants to see medical staff rushing towards them.

But A&E is a kind of Hell. Every patient is, by definition, in extreme distress. All want the magical touch of the doctor or relief by drugs. To the individual patient, everybody else is a nuisance, an obstacle for the medics to negotiate before they get to them. The soundtrack is a symphony of despair - this Wednesday it was the hacking cough, the whimpering girl, the vomiting, the moaning man and the soft bleeping of the machines. But you zone all of this out. In your cubicle you are waiting for the approaching footsteps, the swish of the curtain to signify that the doctor has come at last. All you can do is wait and wait and wait.

As we waited and waited, and I got crosser and crosser about the staff's elastic interpretation of 'soon' and 'in a minute', I thought about the recent strikes and the vitriol poured on public sector workers and their so-called golden pensions. As the A&E staff managed a seemingly endless torrent of frightened and hurting humanity, it put the dispute into perspective for me. Next time you think you're having a shitty day because your boss spoke harshly to you, or your computer was a bit slow and crabby, imagine you're the one who has to tell mum that her daughter's appendix is probably bursting, or the one to mop up the blood and shit from the cubicle floor. Chances are you'll solve that problem that's giving you a headache. Chances are there will be people in A&E that can't be fixed. On a Friday or Saturday night A&E staff may well be attacked by drunk people with busted noses, the same people who will read their tabloid newspapers and have large and forcibly expressed opinions about public sector pensions. 'Those people', the ones they despise, will be the ones giving them pain relief at 3.40am on a Saturday morning. And then come back again the next day to do it all again.

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