My evening at A&E

‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’

Or, as the A&E sign put it on Saturday night, ‘Expect to wait for five hours from your arrival time’.

We don’t want to be here. Who does? We are a gathering of ruined evenings; of people for whom things have not worked out tonight; some, shockingly so.

In short, no one planned this.

Next to us are a couple who’ve come from Surrey to Eastbourne for a dance weekend. ‘I was really looking forward to it,’ she says.

Only she tripped over leaving the hotel for the first event and there’ll be no dancing for a while. And not much ‘hotel’ either, which particularly irritates her husband.

But the ‘five hour’ warning works its magic. However cheerily they arrive, all abandon hope straight away, which is the best way to handle the A&E experience, where hope can kill, waiting fr your name to be called.

It reminds me of the cartoon, in which a customer waits for service in Café Disappointment. The waiter arrives at his table and says ‘Your food is not ready – nor will it ever be.’

It’s surprisingly cold tonight and people ask for blankets, but supply is limited. It’s cold because the main entrance door is broken and cannot be closed, so the chill wind blows in.

This feels symbolic. In a recent survey, in which people were asked for a word to describe Britain at present, by far the most common word was ‘Broken’. And you see it here in the peeling paint, in a system over-stretched; in a main hospital entrance door that won’t close.

But we make the best of it because we’re British. Once you’ve given up hope, stories can be heard, comedy can flourish. I imagine it must have been like this in the London Underground stations during the war, when people were sheltering during the Blitz.

No one wanted to be there either, but you made the best of it.

And of course the ‘Friends’ shop – which would have been great – shut at 5.00pm and won’t be open again until 9.00am tomorrow. So, day-time friends, really and why not? After all, what would people in A&E for the evening or the night want with refreshment, food or comfort?

Which makes it all the worse that the coffee machine doesn’t work either. We try – oh, how we try! It’s like the Arthur legend, with various knights of the realm trying and failing to pull the sword from the stone. Only tonight, Arthur doesn’t manage it either. 

The machine even promises Fairtrade coffee; such a tease. We long to be ethical – but like the door, it’s broken. Well, of course it is. Why did we imagine the coffee machine would work?

Which all means a bit of a walk to a nearby petrol station if we want a hot drink. It’s not hot by the time I get back, but the walk has warmed me up.

Of course, the ‘Five hour wait’ warning proves optimistic for some. Kylie Minogue singing ‘I should be so lucky’ comes to mind. By the time the man opposite us is able to leave, it’s been over seven hours.

He fell over and banged his head, and was advised by 111 to come to A&E. So here he is, and he feels fine, and reckons he’ll be fine. After seven hours, when a doctor has been found, this is confirmed. He’s officially fine.

At one point, I asked him if he’d checked with reception to make sure he hadn’t been forgotten. He was a big man, but said he didn’t want to do that because it might upset them – ‘and then they’ll put me even further down the queue.’

Rule One in A&E (as in Doctor’s surgeries): Never Upset Reception.

We also were sent here after phoning 111. My wife’s leg was increasing in size in nasty reaction to a spider (?) bite. ‘What should we do, 111? Is it serious?’ ‘Go to your nearest A&E’.

Brilliant – we’d never have thought of that.

I know a couple of actors ‘between jobs’ who work on 111 to supplement their income. They claim no medical knowledge at all, but on the plus side, possess lovely diction….and could probably guide you to A&E in various regional accents.

The staff are kind along the way; everyone doing their weary best. To be honest, you’re not always sure who’s who, everyone in different coloured ‘hospital scrubs’ tops; no two the same.

So it’s hard to tell the difference between a doctor and a cleaner and, in the end, perhaps you’re beyond caring. ‘If a cleaner is the only one available, I’ll see them.’

Most are seen quite promptly on arrival, a triage nurse (or the cleaner) making an initial assessment. But don’t be fooled, things are not looking up. It could be four or five hours until your next meeting …with a doctor.

And here’s the rub. It’s the absence of doctors that is the bung in the bottle. A few more of them and we all would have been gone much sooner.

But not the security guards obviously; they’re here for the night….and are universally over-weight in strange opposition to the helpful obesity posters they stand next to; though maybe they’re models. God help them if there’s a chase necessary this evening; or indeed any walking really.

Meanwhile, with time on our hands, we get to know those around us, mixing tragedy and laughter. It’s one way of making friends; and maybe less stressful than Tinder. Relationships must have started here, surely? ‘Our eyes met across the ‘toilet flooded’ sign and six months later we were married. We had the reception in the very A&E where we met.’

We’ll probably all be going on holiday together next year.

And then it comes to an end, as all good things must, and it’s time for goodbyes. Five and a half hours after arrival, we stagger out with a ton of antibiotics, steroids and gratitude. It wasn’t the evening we planned, but the evening we got; and really, a pretty decent one.

A&E, like the country, is broken – the door, the toilets, the coffee machine, the system.

But sometimes the broken can mend.