Christine Tongue: Going from intensive care to a taxi home because your hospital bed is needed

So you’re bluelighted in an emergency ambulance to St Thomas’s hospital where they save your life by doing an almost impossible repair on your failing heart. They keep you in intensive care with one to one attention and a genius Italian surgeon bringing students to look at you and marvel.

Then they say you’re all right, please go!

This what happened to Norman Thomas, my partner last week.

“You’ve been discharged and I’ve booked the bed to someone else,” said the ward manager. “WHAT!!! You didn’t tell me or discuss how he was to get home. I’m not sure I’ve even got my house keys with me. What about transport? We live in East Kent, 80 miles from here and it’s 3.30pm.”

“We don’t organise transport now, you have to do that yourself.”

“He’s two days out of intensive care. He can just about walk across the ward. Has he seen the physio to see if he can go upstairs?”

“I’ll organise that now.” Says Kim, the manager. “But he’s all right – I’ve been watching what he can do all morning.”

Getting ready to go

So the physios come and check he can manage stairs. “Tell them you can’t” says Andy in the next bed, worrying about when he would be kicked out too. But he could – he really wanted to go home.

A pharmacist comes with a bag of drugs heavier than the physio said he was to lift in the first six weeks, and has no time to explain everything.

They find Norman’s clothes, which have been on a journey round the hospital and he hasn’t seen for two weeks.

But I was terrified I’d be handed someone who had a huge scar up his chest, was on 12 lots of medication, and had spent most of the previous week on his back with machines doing his living for him.

I had a row with Kim (“this is a  hospital you know”) about not being consulted about discharge and after care, but got worried about stressing the heart attacks around me so resorted to pleading.

“We came up by ambulance and I’ve got no idea how we can get home. I was told transport would be arranged.”

“Oh all right, if I organise transport, and you find your house key will you go home now?”

Norman was very keen to go by now so we agreed.

G4S

Transport has to come from where you were sent from, in our case, Kent. Which means G4S…..

“They may not take you as well” says Kim, “you’d better go and get a train now.”

“What if he arrives before me? And isn’t he supposed to have someone with him?” I say, imagining Victoria station in the rush hour, two hours on the train, delays, worrying about Norman travelling alone. I’m in pure adrenalin mode and prepared to fight before I do the flight bit.

In the end a nice nurse called Comfort organised it and made sure they’d take me as well.

Three hours after booking it we find out it’s been mysteriously cancelled!  Kim is reluctant to ring them – its so hard to get through and they don’t answer their phone. “Let me do it” I offer and stand at the counter looking helpful.

It’s booked again.

Broken down

Two hours later I ask again. “It’s broken down on the M20,” says Kim, who is getting more contrite by the minute and apologising as I’m clearly upset.

Meantime Norman is in the “day room” – a cupboard with six chairs where the new admissions are stored while they find them a bed, and the patients being chucked out have to go when their bed is needed and they aren’t! He’s discussing heart problems and who’s had the most scary condition and meets the poor lady whose planned “urgent” surgery the previous week had been cancelled because of his emergency.

Weird sort of situation. And a Thai nurse is trying to take a case history from a jolly deaf man who thinks it’s hilarious she’s shouting in a funny accent and everyone in Southwark now knows all his medical history.

Time for a taxi

So it’s nearly 10.30pm and I make a decision. We’ll take a taxi. How do I do that?

You have to go down to Patient Transport, pick up a red phone and order a taxi. An almost inaudible voice takes your details and quotes you £150 to go to Broadstairs. I try to remember how much money is in the house and in my purse – no cards can be used, cash only!

Kim goes off duty and a nicer Scandi nurse lends us a student to put Norman in a wheelchair with all his stuff and take us to the transport dept.

Home at last

Two hours later, through pouring rain and – on my part – extreme tension in case stitches get bumped undone or the patient goes through the windscreen – you shouldn’t put a seat belt on a new wound – we’re home.

My neighbour has been waiting up for us and friends have cleaned the house and put supplies in the fridge – Kim wasn’t to know that because I didn’t know!

I scurry in to find the money, scrabble it together and pay off the driver. A handful of notes.

So the NHS is fantastic on skill and care and dedication to the welfare of its patients, but the system can spend a small fortune on high tech care and then bung that expensive operation into a dodgy taxi without caring about what happens next.

That can’t be right.