A bit of a health scare over the last few days!
For the last week or so I had been trying to be more healthy and up my exercise levels. To this end, we decided to go for a walk in the Dublin hills last Friday. It involved a fairly sustained climb through woodland for about 25 minutes, before we reached the top to enjoy commanding views over the city.
On the way up I started to feel a bit of pain and tightness across the top of my chest. I was breathing hard, as it’s a fairly steep climb, so I didn’t think much about it.
But then I got the same pain when I was out cycling a few days later, and resolved to go the the GP, just to set my mind at rest. I thought maybe I had picked up a chest infection, and that the pain was from when I was breathing really hard from the exercise.
So on Tuesday morning I sat down with my GP – who I have a great affection for, as she’s been amazing during my Hodgkins Lymphoma treatment – and described my symptoms. She listened intently, listened to my chest, and checked the report from a recent chest x-ray that I had. And she told me that it was possible I had a chest infection, but the thing she was most worried about was my heart!
She wrote me a referral letter, and told me to go to the Emergency Department of my local hospital.
Accident & Emergency
To say that the A&E in my local hospital is a bit grim is a bit of an understatement. Having enjoyed the relative luxury of receiving my cancer care in a private hospital, I had was not used to the conditions in a public hospital.
The place was packed. As in, it was overcrowded. Seriously overcrowded. The last time I was in A&E I had spent 24 hours on a trolley in the corridor and thought that was bad. But this was worse. There were trolleys (with people on them) squeezed into every corner. It was like a game of Tetris, trying to slot people into any spare gap.
One young woman had some kind of dental infection that had spread to her throat. Her tonsils had swollen so much that they were now touching, and she couldn’t swallow anything – food or water – which made giving her any oral pain medication a problem. She looked terrible, but was clearly not bad enough to even warrant a trolley. All she got was a chair to sit in while she received IV steroids to deal with the swelling.
I was more lucky than most. As someone that presented with chest pains (albeit only under exertion) I was put in one of only a handful of private rooms that had heart monitors.
I had an ECG performed to check my heart, and I was also sent along to get a chest x-ray. And then I waited a few hours. Then I was transferred – still within A&E – to a Chest Pain assessment area. And that’s where I stayed overnight and for much of the next day.
I was connected up to a heart monitor that pinged and bleeped constantly, and I was laid on a trolley that had a mattress that was only about an inch thick and painful to lie on. It took 3 hours to get a blanket. And for dinner I was given a plain ham sandwich and a cup of tea.
I guess I only slept for a couple of hours that night. The Emergency Department deals with people coming and going 24 hours a day, so it’s far too noisy to sleep properly. And as such, it was almost with some relief when the lights went on at 6.00am and the nurse came in to do my morning obs.
First of all, they told me that I would have a cardiac stress tests – basically putting me on a treadmill to see how my heart performed under stress – but after a few hours they decided against it, as my recent tales of hill walking pretty-much told them that I got chest pain when I exercised.
So they decided to perform a coronary angiogram upon me. This involves inserting a tube into my artery as far as my heart. And then a special dye would be released, and they would follow the progress of the dye through the blood vessels of my heart in real-time using an x-ray machine.
They were checking if I had angina – a narrowing of the vessels that supply blood to the muscles of my heart. And if they found any problems, then they could insert stents (that would hold any narrowed blood vessels open) as part of the same procedure.
As it happens, I was given the all-clear. My heart was fine, and not the source of the symptoms I had been having. And after 32 hours in hospital I was going to be allowed to go home.
It was a great relief to me, my wife, and my family and friends that I was OK, and that I didn’t have a dicky ticker. But at the same time it didn’t get to the bottom of why I was experiencing pain in my chest. It seems I’ll have to go back to the GP for them to have another stab at it.
All Life Is Here
As much as I hated being in hospital, it was amazing to meet different people in the hospital, many of which were in a much worse state than me!
At one point, while I was in A&E, I was next to a rather famous Irish female singer, who I’ll not name to protect her privacy. But it was nice to be in esteemed company.
On the other side of me was Jean, a 79 year old widow, who lives on her own in the town of Arklow, about 70km south of Dublin. She arrived by ambulance with chest pains, was checked over, and told that she could go home. However, she has no family in Ireland – just a daughter living in England – and as such, no means to get home. She tried to get staff to phone some of her neighbours, to ask them to come and get her, but the staff seemed to show no interest in helping her.
We tried to help. As the lady had no mobile phone of her own, my wife offered to call one of the neighbours. She got through to the man, but he didn’t seem keen to want to drive to Dublin. He wanted the hospital to send her home in an ambulance.
She was a very chatty lady. Mad as a box of frogs, but with a heart of gold. She told us about the puppy she had just got, and also about how she helped a fellow pensioner that had been robbed. But by the time I was being moved to cardiac ward to get my angiogram, she had been sitting for several hours waiting for the staff to do something about her getting home.
In a way it’s no wonder that there is such a problem with overcrowding when a lady like that has to sit for hours waiting for someone to make a few phone calls for her, to find someone to come and collect her.
I can only hope something was eventually sorted for her, and she made it home. Not least because the puppy had been left alone in the house while she was in hospital.
Later, in the cardiac ward, there was a male patient (aged in his 50s or 60s) that propositioned a woman that had literally just returned to the ward after heart surgery. He shouted across the room that, now she had a fixed heart, they could have sex that night.
That was quite shocking, even if it was a bit of banter. But not as shocking as the man in the bed opposite me. He would mumble to himself, and it was hard to make out what he was saying. But when we spotted him trying to get out of bed, and nearly falling on the floor as a result, we realised he wanted to go to the toilet.
There were no staff around, as they were doing a handover between shifts, and so my wife went and got someone. A health care assistant came and talked to the man, and said she would fetch a bottle for him to pee into. And even though she was back within about a minute, in the mean time the man decided he couldn’t wait. He dropped his pyjama bottoms in front of everyone in the ward, and started peeing on the floor.
It was apparent everywhere I went that the public hospital was chronically understaffed. The old lady who couldn’t go home, because nobody had time to make a phone call. The gentleman who had to piss on the floor, because no staff had been around the ward in the last hour.
Everyone had to wait ages to get anything, just because the nursing staff were so busy. And unless you kept asking for something, you could well be forgotten about and left for hours, maybe even days!
In A&E overnight I was told that there was one registered nurse caring for 30 patients. That can’t be an acceptable or safe ratio! Some patients need a lot of attention, and as such others are often left to their own devices.
The actual nurses themselves are great, once you can grab their attention. But it’s clear they are overworked and stressed. And in A&E nurses may not finish till 10pm at night, and then be back at work at 7am the next day. That can’t be right either!