Indisputably, life is complicated. However we are increasingly ill-prepared to receive and process complex ideas and problems. The challenges facing the NHS are multifaceted, intricate and blown up to a national scale. The campaign to raise awareness of the damage being down to the health service is often waylaid by an inability to crystallise our concerns into a single message that can penetrate through the spin and lies. Worse, the constant back and forth of statistics and numbers both fatigues the general public and dehumanises the subject matter.
The past few weeks have seen the NHS at a level of crisis like no other in its history. Colleagues across the country are reporting conditions no developed industrial country should ever tolerate in their hospitals.
At this point I would normally bring forth statistics illustrating this disaster: waiting times, trolley waits, operations cancelled, ambulance queues. We’ve all tried that. It’s not working.
So, for a moment, let me simply tell you a story.
You are busy back at work after the New Year, trudging through the piled paperwork eclipsing your desk, when you get a phone call.
It’s your grandmother- she doesn’t feel well. She tells you she has chest pains. Concerned you tell her to call an ambulance straight away. It takes some convincing, but she eventually agrees.
She’s a tough elderly lady, never one to complain. She hangs up the phone and duly dials the ambulance.
You wait a few minutes and then phone her back. She tells you she called and they are on their way. Relieved you tell her to take the mobile you left her, and make sure it’s switched on. You make arrangements to leave work early to get out and see her.
An hour passes. Not hearing anything you phone back on the mobile. It bounces to voicemail. Concerned, you call back the landline. Your grandmother picks up: she’s still at home, waiting. The pain is still there. Maybe a bit more than a twinge. She feels a little sick, couldn’t manage lunch at all. You start to panic a bit, trying to see if there is anyone who can get there to take her directly sooner. You are two hours away. You hang up and dial her GP, not really sure what to do. You end up on hold waiting for a receptionist who eventually tells you to call 999. You try to call 999 but they can only tell you an ambulance is on the way. You hang up and dial again, tell her you’re on your way. She tells you not to fuss but you’re already in the taxi heading to the train station.
You try her landline again before you get on the tube: it’s been nearly two hours now and still no ambulance. You tell her to call 999 again. She says okay. She sounds weak.
The tube journey is the longest and worst of your life. Every extra delay is torture.
You get to the overground station and try her mobile again. No answer. The landline rings and rings. You dial and re dial frantically. There’s no answer. It’s been nearly 3 hours since her call. Sick with worry you bundle onto the train, desperately dialling 999, the police, an old neighbour, anyone you can think will be able to get there sooner. No one can. The train sweeps into the country wrenching your soul as you will it to go faster.
You jump in a taxi at the other end, stuff a twenty into the drivers hand and tell them to get you there as fast as humanly possible. There’s no answer on any line. The taxi driver weaves through traffic and bus lanes and jumps an orange light, screeching to a halt outside your grandmother’s house, just as an ambulance pulls up. It’s been three hours 46 minutes exactly.
Frustrated and driven mad with worry you shout and scream at the crew, who look exhausted and defeated but run up to the door and knock frantically. In the end the door is kicked in by the police. But it’s too late. You find your grandmother sitting on her favourite chair, slumped, ashen, and far too still.
It’s too late.
I work in a heart attack centre. We have strict national targets for patients having acute heart attacks- 90 minutes from arrival to a life-saving procedure to open a blocked heart vessel. We do this because we know every precious minute we wait means more damage to the heart, more risk of heart failure and death. We often get in there a lot sooner- from the moment a patient arrives at the front door a whole cardiac team is waiting for them: doctor, specialist heart nurse, radiographer and specialist cardiac physiologist. While we hear the handover we ultrasound scan the heart, take electrical tracings, blood tests, give blood thinning medication and tubes for giving fluid, examine and explain the procedure and consent the patient. At a clip this whole process takes just five minutes. We then whip the patient into our procedure room, prep the instruments and special tubes we use to access the heart, sterilise the area, hook the patient up to a monitor and blood pressure cuff, give specialist medications and then insert a needle into their wrist, then a sheath then a tube which we thread all the way into the three arteries around the heart. We take x-rays to see where we are going as we inject dye. We then thread a balloon down the tube and inflate it inside the blockage. We put a stent in to keep it open and then we relax.
On good days the patient feels better, the chest pain is gone, the artery is open. A life is saved. The clock says just 50 minutes have passed. We get them a cup of tea.
We do this several times a day, every day, day and night. The system works and it works well. It just needs the resources to run it.
For Marie Norris, the 81-year old lady who died this week 3 hours 46 minutes after calling an ambulance with chest pains we were too late. For her and dozens more, the ambulance never came.
This has been the worst winter in NHS history and we aren’t even at the halfway point yet. It comes at a time when the NHS has never had less resources for its population, never been more understaffed. If the stats and figures and endless spin don’t connect with you, think of this happening to your own grandmother. To you. Is that the country you want? Is that a government you would vote for?
Think about that.
We appreciate your thanks and support, but what NHS staff really want is to be able to do our jobs, to not have to face families who’ve been let down by the system. To not have to explain their loved one died because we couldn’t do enough, because we didn’t have the time or funds or staff. Don’t give us your thoughts and prayers, give us your action, your vote, your demonstrations. Whatever it takes.
Give us, and give yourselves, a chance. A chance more than Marie had.