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Dublin: 3 °C Tuesday 18 February, 2020
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Opinion: Examined in the toilet, protesting in a chair for a bed - my battle for comfort in hospital

Jess was given a makeshift bed behind a doorway when battling infection following a mastectomy.

Anonymous

Jess (not her real name), a woman in her 40s, describes her experience in Beaumont Hospital last week, being treated for an infection after a mastectomy. 

THE DOCTOR EXAMINES the open wound on my right breast in the ward toilet in Beaumont hospital. We both know it’s all wrong. 

It’s Day 1 on the ward. I spent the previous night in a bed that was wheeled into a six-bed ward, mine becoming the seventh. 

It’s stuck directly behind the door, over by the TV with no curtains, chair or wardrobe. Chronic overcrowding leads to this. 

A double mastectomy six weeks earlier has left me feeling weak. It included a two-week stay in hospital as I wrestled with pneumonia after the surgery.

This time around, my wound opened just before bringing my five-year-old boy to a birthday party, spilling blood and nearly causing my lovely husband to faint. He’s self-employed and has seen me through having my ovaries out last year and the mastectomy this year.

All that, and keeping the ship steady at home and in the office.  

All in my genes

I have BRCA2 which is a genetic condition that leaves me very likely to get breast cancer.

Several family members have had breast cancer and are still being treated for it, and although surgery was a hard decision, I felt it was the right one for me.

After being admitted the day before through the Emergency Department, I was told they had “squeezed” a bed into one of the wards for me.

The first night I was glad of it. But after little sleep, I was desperate for a real bed with curtains.

Day 1 on the ward, therefore, was bumpy with the drugs trolley, beds and wheelchairs banging into the ward door, which in turn banged into my dodgy seventh bed.

So far, so frustrating.

After some time, Ann from catering pulled me aside: “Listen, you can’t stay here, you’ll have no sleep and no privacy, it’s mad, if you don’t shout now you’ll be stuck there.” 

Julie, a young woman being discharged that day came over shortly after: “You can have my bed, I’m going home.” But it doesn’t work that way, for good reason.

Other patients in the ward told me to just to squat on Julie’s bed. Revolution was in the air but this had to be done with some imagination. 

So I approached the mothership nursing station with scribbling medics. I told a doctor: “I’m not going back into that bed again, it’s totally unsuitable and I was examined in the toilet this morning.”

She said I might miss my scan slot if the porter can’t find me.     

Hmmm.

“Well, then I’ll sit on a plastic chair in the hall beside the ward door, in case the porter comes to call.” 

For several hours, I’m the smiling mad-looking woman on the chair nodding at patients and staff as they work the corridor.

Covert messages of support fly from lips as they pass – “good woman, keep going”.

Sweet relief

Sometime later, a nurse quietly tells me “that bed is yours”. An hour after that, I’m sitting up in a proper bed with my stuff in the locker and the curtains pulled. It’s like winning the lottery.

In the hospital, this small space is sacred. Everything else is decided for you, from what time lights go out to what and when you eat. 

Doctor J arrives later on that day, with bad news, but she delivers it with grace and kindness: “You are probably going to have to stay in tonight if you can’t get a scan today.” 

A whole day in this place to be told I won’t get a scan. Tears spring from nowhere. It means another night away from my smiley five-year-old boy.

So I ask: “But if the scan is good then I could be out by tomorrow?”

She smiles, “Yes if the scan is good.” 

I’ve already taken my own swab from the wound in the toilet. I happened to mention it that night when speaking to a good friend, who’s a nurse.

“You were examined in a toilet and took your own swab in the toilet?” She’s beyond belief, but you get used to lines being crossed all the time here. Privacy and dignity have taken a back seat, but it seems now that proper care is affected as exhausted staff struggle to do their job in impossible circumstances.

It seems simple to me – we need more hospital beds.

There’s over a week to this election so I’m going to be reviewing each party’s long-term health strategy to decide my vote.

Day 2 on the ward

I’m eating Kellogg’s for breakfast instead of my usual porridge. You’ve got to live the dream.

My fear is that the implant is infected. This could mean another operation to remove it and a possible six-month delay for a new one. At this rate, chicken fillet breast-fillers begin to look attractive.

My nurse is endlessly patient, methodical and compassionate. He is from the Philippines and he nursed me with great care on my previous stay. He’s on nights and is about to leave but promises to push the scan. 

Finally moving

At 9.20 that morning a young porter arrives – do I need a wheelchair to bring me to the ground floor? Finally!

Pulling on jeans and boots, this woman is walking. He tells me he generally does 20,000 steps a day on the job.

Down in the ultrasound clinic, Dr B presses goo over my right breast as she rolls the ultrasound and patiently explains the images. The good news is it looks good, with no material trapped that could cause infection.

“Can I get home today?”

She’s hopeful: “I don’t see why not, but I have to consult with your team.” 

Good news. Back to the ward for the release waiting game. Just knowing I might get out the door soon lifts my spirits.

Next to my bed, a consultant in his 60s gently asks three young doctors about my neighbour’s symptoms.

He’s methodical, kindly but rigorous.

One young woman falters with nerves.

“Take a breath now, think about all the reasons why the symptoms have presented.”

She starts to respond, but can’t follow-up with the correct information. He stops her.

“When you don’t know the answer, keep quiet in the exam. Do not ask questions to cover a lack of knowledge – if I was the examiner I’d bore down into you. I’m trying to help you here but you have to be prepared for rigorous assessment.”

He prompts, prods and leads each of them through the correct answer until the final question.

“What is the most important thing when looking at a scan analysis?”

No answer.

“It is only as good as the person who took it and what their opinion is and opinions can differ – so be aware of that.” 

In the middle of chaos, it cheers me up to think that a medical masterclass goes on every day in a teaching hospital. 

I wait all day to be discharged. 

At 5 pm, Mr N, my consultant, arrives at my bed in his surgical scrubs. “Sorry for the delay but the system is totally down for diagnostics.” The wound is examined and dressed.

“No sign of infection and I’ll see you next Monday in clinic.”

Nearly there. Then another wait for a registrar to write a prescription. Nearly, nearly there. A doctor is beeped. Dr A arrives in her 10th hour of an 18-hour shift.

“Sorry but it was mental in here today, the diagnostic imaging system was totally down in hospitals across the country. It wasn’t just you, even patients waiting for surgery were delayed as patient scan images couldn’t be uploaded.” 

I notice the Fitbit on her wrist.

“Yeah, I can do up to 25,000 steps a day.” 

I’m now thinking about the whole steps thing myself. 

Finally leaving

Before I leave I go over to the girl admitted overnight who got the dodgy seventh bed behind the door, under the TV and beside the toilet, with no curtains.

“Listen, I was there yesterday, if you don’t shout and say you want a proper bed you’ll be left there.” 

She nods and says she’s waiting for an operation. By the time I leave the ward her bed is gone and she’s hopefully in theatre. 

Home, sweet home

Later, the three of us celebrate at home with pancakes and cream for tea. The young fella asks, “mam, did the white blood cells win?”

“They did pet, they did.”    

When contacted by TheJournal.ie, Beaumont Hospital said it does not comment on individual cases.

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