Sunday, May 29, 2011

NHS: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

This morning my sister and I should be waking up to this:

Instead we are still ensconced in North London.  Not fair.  But at least it's not rainy.  GOT to look for the glass half full, got to look for the glass half full...(said through fairly gritted teeth).

We were due to fly to Malta yesterday for a 4 day break.  Ex and AG are over to stay with the boys for 5 days and I had planned to gallivant off to the island where I was born and lived until I was 3 years old.  I don't have personal memories of living there, but watched so many cine films growing up and saw so many baby pics, that those 2D snapshots created perfect memories for me to adopt as my own.  For some reason I have never got around to revisiting before, although always planned to.  Now was perfect timing.  Or so I thought.

The universe thought otherwise.

Goddamn you universe and your wicked, wicked ways.

Last week the household shared a communal cold.  No big deal.  Happens all the time in a generous, sharing household such as ours.  None of us thought anything of it.  Maybe it did cross my mind that diving might not be an option if my sinuses continued to play up, but I dismissed that thought as too negative to even contemplate.  Of course I would be going diving.  Positive thinking Nicola! This cold is going to clear in no time.

On Thursday I noticed my eyesight was a little blurry, as though I was trying to peer through a permanent fog.  Odd and a little disconcerting.  Friday morning I was woken by the boys at 5.15am and it was as though my eyeballs had been doused in acid.  The pain made me want to physically scratch them both out with my fingernails.  I could barely make out my own hand in front of my face.  Needless to say, I panicked.  Just a little.

Thank God for my sister - Florence Nightingale reincarnated in a pair of Gap pajamas.  She called NHSDirect while I lay on my bed, crying in pain and fear.  She coraled the boys into clothes, called a cab and we hotfooted our way to the nearest A&E department at the Whittington Hospital.

Nicola's Public Health Service Advice #1: If you are ever in need of emergency medical assistance DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT bother with the A&E department at the Whittington Hospital.

For a start, the place was deserted except for a couple of security guards having a cup of tea in a side office and a homeless man curled up asleep/comatose on 3 chairs in one corner.  I was in full panic mode at this point.  The pain was excruciating and I was terrified I was losing my sight.  My sister was desperately trying to source some help, while I moaned and sobbed in a heap on a chair, but nobody appeared.  The boys were leaping around the waiting room as though it was their own personal race course/play centre, which didn't help to create the aura of calm, medical professional efficiency we were seeking.

We were there for nearly 30 minutes before a nurse deigned to turn up.  Thirty minutes of me carrying on like a woman semi-possessed and my sister banging on glass partitions and striding about corridors screetching "What is it going to take to get some bloody emergency help around here???  For God sake, my sister is in agony and needs someone to help her NOW!".

The nurse, when she arrived, was worse than useless.  Hardly spoke any English.  Led me, blindly, to a room down the corridor and then left me there, alone and unable to see a bloody thing, for another 15 minutes.  She returned with a saline drip to rinse out my eyes, which became a farcical exercise.  She disappeared again.  After another 10 minutes I stumbled down the corridor, practically on my hands and knees, to find my sister and the boys.  "Use the iPhone - let's find a specialist or something and get out of here.  Find someone that can actually help me."  I begged her.  Moorfields Eye Hospital.  Of course!  And they had an A&E department.  Perfect.  We told the nurse sitting at another reception desk around the corner that we were leaving to try to find specialist help and she barely registered our existence.  "Whatever", was her only response.  Her abundant care and concern was reflected by the casual and dismissive manner in which she turned the page of her Grazia magazine.

I was past the point of despair at this point and could scarcely believe that this had been our experience.  I was desperate to get some help, having never been in this much pain before and, in typical Nicola Drama Queen fashion, was truly terrified that my eyesight was going to be permanently damaged.  I stood on Archway Road with the sensation that my eyes were trying to burn their way out of my skull, while my sister tried to hail a cab to no avail.  We staggered to the Tube, while my sister did her best to both guide me and keep both boys under control.  At this point it is rush hour.  Hundreds of people jostle past us, although once on the train a very kind man leads me into his seat and I pull Captain Underpants onto my lap and bury my head into the back of his sweatshirt.  God knows what all the commuters thought of me, moaning and crying.  I must have looked quite deranged.  I didn't care.  I felt deranged.  I just wanted to get some help to make the pain go away and couldn't believe we were having to go to such lengths to get it.

We finally stagger into Moorfields Eye Hospital and our experience is instantly transformed into one of infinite medical care and efficiency.  I am seen within seconds of a walking through the door, even though the waiting room is full to the brim at 8am in the morning.  Anaesthetic eye drops are administered immediately.  The relief from the constant pain is indescribable.  I could snog the nurse in gratitude.  She is an angel.  Within another few minutes my eyes are assessed for potential chemical damage, which is negative.  I am assessed by three different nurses, who are calm and incredibly sympathetic, yet reassuring.  A very kind friend, with two boys of her own, offers to look after the boys (who, at this point, are leapfrogging the waiting room chairs then running sprint relays up and down the hospital hallway, blatantly disobeying repeated orders from my sister to behave in anything resembling a calm and orderly manner).  They depart and I wait to see the consultant, still half convinced that my eyesight (or lack of it) is damaged beyond repair.

It's not.  It's all going to be fine.  I had a severe viral infection which spread from my sinuses to my eyes. I have various lotions, potions and eyedrops to lubricate my eyes for the next 4-8 weeks, which is how long it is going to take the infection to heal.  48 hours later and my eyes feel relatively fine.  Certainly fine enough to be sitting on a sun lounger or mooching around historic relics on a Meditarranean get-away.  *sigh*   The timing of my most recent of medical escapades was poor, to say the least.

But not as poor as my experience at the Whittington Hospital.  Which pains me a little, because I have always been a great defender of the NHS.

When I lived in Birmingham for 6 months, in 2006, I received excellent care from my local doctors surgery.  It was beyond anything that I had experienced in Chicago, from the time and attention I was given to the knowledge and care I benefited from.  In addition, Captain Underpants has a mild blood clotting condition called Von Willebrand Type 1.  This was diagnosed in Chicago, however the specialist in Birmingham was the first to insist that the whole family was tested and Captain Underpants was added to a national database, to ensure his medical condition is on the record in the whole of the UK.  Yet again, the level of care and efficiency was impressive and beyond that which we received in the US.

When I returned to the UK in December I registered with the local practice and passed on the medical notes concerning my Melanoma diagnosis and treatment.  I was referred to  a specialist dermatalogist at the Whittington Hospital and an appointment was set up within 2 weeks.  The consultant I saw was amazing.  My case was going to be referred to two other consultants in the hospital, including an oncologist, and I would be seen and assessed every 3 months for a minimum of two years to ensure I remained cancer free.  Yet again, this surpassed the medical care and treatment that I had paid through the nose for in Chicago.  When the consultant was closely scanning my body for other suspicious mutant beauty spots, she discovered a lump in my groin, which I was pretty certain had been there for a year or so and, as it was painless, I had thought nothing of it.  I was referred for an ultrasound scan.

I went for the scan within a matter of weeks and yet again, was impressed with the diligence and expertise of the radiologist I encountered.  He performed a multitude of scans, then took the time to talk me through his findings, reassuring me that he found nothing out of the ordinary.

Overall my experience has been that the level of care available in this country is definitely on a par - if not exceeding - that which I enjoyed in the US.  Even given the dismissive - verging on negligent - nature of medical assistance I received at the Whittington's A&E department, I remain a huge fan of the NHS.

Although the gaps in the system are a little more apparent through my rose tinted spectacles (...the contact lenses are unfortunately out of commission for at least the next 2-4 weeks).


  1. You should definitely complain about this. There is a Patients' Advocacy group, that was started by the late Claire Raynor. They are great (I once got a personal reply from her) and will tell yo uwhat to do. This is not acceptable and could have caused very serious consquences.
    Sorry about your eyes. Trust you!

  2. You poor thing Nicola, what a horrible experience! So sorry about your eyes and the cancelled holiday and the AWFUL Whittington. (I've heard horror stories about that hospital before). I'm so glad Moorfields was able to help you. Expat Mum is right, you should definitely complain - it' s not acceptable. Wishing you a speedy recovery. xx

  3. Blimey, I'm going to learn from your example and not write a post about how much I love the NHS and how expensive health care in the US is. Look what happened when you did that. The universe is sometimes so unkind.

  4. Meanwhile, I hope these will cheer you up.


  5. I am a Brit working in the US healthcare system, and am a huge supporter of the NHS. There doesn't seem too much difference between a wait at a poorly staffed A&E in the UK vs a poorly staffed and underfunded ER in the US, except the US ER also comes with a hefty bill for your troubles. At least in the UK you regained your eyesight and kept your house!! I definitely agree you should complain about Whittington - at least with the NHS you feel you are part of the system and can effect change, and not just a disgruntled customer.

    Having said that, the docs I work for over here are fabulous - and the medical practice I run is a work of art ;)

  6. that sounds seriously painful (not just the eyes, but the missing the trip and the NHS). Hope you're on the mend soon

  7. That's just awful. I am so pleased you are sorted but you should try to tell someone what happened at the first A&E. It should never be like that.

  8. Expat mum - Good advice. I will complain (given that I have also written about how irritated I am by Brits who whinge but don't do anything constructive...)

    NVG - Thanks...I know, I don't seem to be having a whole heap of luck with my life right now...WTF??!!! I just have to believe that I was destined to befall an even greater unfortunate incident in Malta and that this was the universe's way of ensuring that didn't half half full...

    Iota - yes, but your funny links helped to cheer me up!!!

    Aliblahblah - Hurrah! My view exactly! And I will complain. BTW I LOVE your blog and am going to become an avid follower. Thanks for finding me and commenting...

    HOM - One thing I have to be grateful for is that I bounce back pretty quickly, illness wise. Which is all the more irritating in this instance!

    Kellogsville - You're right! I thought we had stumbled into an alternative universe, or took the wrong turn on Archway Road and ended up in some 3rd world country...

  9. What a nightmare! I'm glad you're getting better. X