My recent visit to A&E

‘Please wipe up the blood.
Don’t leave it for someone else.’

It’s not a common sign on an office wall, but this is no ordinary office.  I’m sitting in one of the A&E cubicles in Eastbourne hospital and, in a sad bid for a sense of control, I’m trying to work out exactly who everyone is by their uniform – and I’m failing.

There are just too many, as one coloured shirt passes me on to another coloured shirt. I have no idea who is who.

Earlier, I’d experienced chest pains while warming up for my run, and was wisely advised to have them checked out, so here I am, early Saturday morning…though the pains had quite gone by the time I got to the hospital.

Always the way, eh?

But as I say, the ‘who’s who’ of an A&E ward – like Boris Johnson’s appeal – is an unsolvable mystery. My first treatment is by someone who earlier, I’d imagined to be a cleaner, given her track suit and jeans.

Well, she may be a cleaner, and good luck to her if she is – she’s competent and cheerful and we won’t get hung up on labels. (Until we get to the operating theatre, maybe.)

But yes, so many uniforms, as I’m passed from black shirt to light blue shirt to light green shirt to darker blue to fading yellow to – ta da! – smart casual clothes. Yes, we have finally reached the Junior Doctor!…with a smart casual supercilious manner to match..

It would help her if I had a heart problem, I do know this. Case solved. So she asks heart problem questions. ‘Did you feel sick/pain in jaw/pain in left arm/shortness of breath/bowel movements regular? What had I eaten recently? Swelling anywhere?’

My answers are not satisfactory because I’m saying ‘no’ the whole time. It isn’t fitting in with the her heart theory, and I can see this is irritating her – like when the detective’s prime suspect, who they don’t like much, is discovered to have an alibi. 

In fact, I begin to worry for her blood pressure as she takes mine. If she were a client, I’d ask about her relationship to anger.

Over the following hours, blood tests too numerous to mention…three ECG’s… pulse monitored constantly, chest X ray – it’s a pretty decent overhaul.

My nurse – well, I say ‘my nurse’ …she’s wearing a light blue shirt, which is a bit ‘nursey’. Anyway, she’s getting off at 8.30 this evening, after her twelve and a half hour shift – and then her and her boyfriend are driving up to Oxford, not for the dreaming spires, but to go moto cross racing the next day.

‘After all this rain, it’s going to be pretty messy,’ she says.

‘Do you get hurt much?’

‘I come off the bike every week’ – it’s a 250cc, if you’re still awake and interested – ‘but it’s usually OK. I broke my collarbone last year – had to have surgery to re-align it.’

‘How long did that take to heal?’

‘Couldn’t do anything for about three months.’

Later, while waiting for my chest X ray, I notice another sign:

The Radiology Department cannot be responsible for child care while X rays are being undertaken.’

I enjoy the idea of a number of white-coated radiologists knee-deep in messy play…

But I do get bored of telling everyone about my pulse. The alarm keeps going off when it drops below 40, and there’s clearly no communication between anyone.

‘We’re worried about your heart rate.’

‘I run. It is low.’

‘Yes, but it’s abnormally low.’

‘It’s always like this,’ I say. ‘It’s quite normal.’

And then two minutes later, another colour shirt comes in:

‘We’re worried about your heart rate.’ Repeat…and repeat again…and again.

Though I learn about blood pressure, about which I know very little. You will already know this, of course, but I always assumed that when my doctor took it – well, that was sort-of that.

But I realise that with it being taken every half hour, it is significantly different each time, going down and down and down as the day wears on. Context matters.

And the time-line of things? I went into A&E at 7.00am. I leave, thoroughly and wonderfully tested, a little after 3.00pm. Tests like this, with their remarkable science, would have cost the earth had I gone private.

I’ve felt right as rain throughout, which makes me an impatient patient – though with moments of acceptance; but they are no nearer to explaining the chest pains as I leave than when I arrived.

So that’s a mystery, as well as the shirts.

And to help narrative continuity, my smart casual junior doctor remains repressed anger to the end, telling me as she rips out my cannula that only women know about pain.

It wasn’t the Saturday I asked for, but the Saturday I was given, in the kind and chaotic arms of the NHS – this fragile and imperfect miracle of care.

I scream gratitude in the afternoon rain.

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