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

Emergency services

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.


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.


  1. Surely if you were with him he was not alone and could have travelled home by train with you at 15:30 like I did with my wife after open heart surgery at St Thomas. The whole team at St Thomas were very professional even when I had a couple of setbacks which delayed my discharge by an extra 5 days but at no time did they rush to try to discharge me before I was ready. You will find that a cardiac rehab based in Thanet will be in touch in the next few days to evaluate and bring his recovery to full strength. I could not have asked for better care.

    • The care was fantastic. The discharge was rushed so much that vital things were not in place. there was no way we could have got a train – he couldn’t walk far or carry anything. The least of our worries but still important was that he didnt have a coat. He came up as an emergency so nothing was planned. I’m glad things worked out for you. Scary times! How are you now?

    • The hospital advise patients NOT to use public transport in case there is a medical emergency on the way hone

  2. Be grateful that he’s alive, you didn’t have to find cash for his care, yes I know we pay taxes , but don’t cover what he had. I’m sorry for your stress but be thankful for those wonderful surgeons, nurses, paramedics etc. Now enjoy the rest of your life.

    • Yes our NHS is brilliant. They work miracles in the over sretched conditions. People are living longer due to the excellent care given. That all said. I find this particular case to be disgraceful. Where was the duty of care ? If all is true in this particular case. I am horrified that this was deemed acceptable treatment of a patient .

      • While I accept that the narrative may be a true representation of what happened there is only one side of the story presented.
        That said we all need to be aware that the NHS is there to provide health care, not social care, which includes transportation.
        It is no wonder money is short for care with so much wasted on non health matters.
        The population has got to get real, and stop expecting everything, right down to a prescription for Paracetamol, for pities sake.

        • Your name isn’t Hunt is it? Is Gru just to cover up? After care is the word! or don’t you realise that without this he could possibly be back & all the skill and dedication wasted. Simple fact is that all the NHS cuts in beds is the result of sending people home early. It is happening all over the country, beds & wards & even hospitals going! A wonderful service being destroyed and sold off to companies to make profit.

          • I am grateful every day that he’s alive! And I thanked the surgeon every time I saw him. I can’t think of a better use for public money than caring for the sick and vulnerable.

    • I am grateful every day that he’s alive! And I thanked the surgeon every time I saw him. I can’t think of a better use for public money than caring for the sick and vulnerable.

  3. They wouldn’t have needed transportation if they discharged when appropriate and not when they needed a bed. I’ve just had my daughter sent home with cauda equina in agaonising pain and unable to walk – simply becaue they didn’t have a bed for what should have been an urgent admission. Even when she went back to outpatients a week later in excruitiating pain with bladder etc no longer working they weren’t sure she could be admitted – due to lack of beds. As it was she had to go home and come back at 8.30pm after they’d kicked some other poor soul out of the only available bed in a large acute hospital. My s-i-l is a bed manager and comes home every night in tears…and we aren’t even in the ‘crisis’ period yet!!

    • I do hope your problems are sorted soon. Thank you for your understanding. We must tell our stories so that the people making the cuts know the effects of their decisions.

  4. Yes, the pressure on beds and staff is that bad, that people are being discharged before they are ready. I sympathise with you, but sympathise with the Ward Manager, who had to tell you. She would have hated doing that. I well remember discussions as to who was the fittest to leave. Furious heated rows, but the only way the severe cuts can be managed is by this ruthless balancing act. Dont blame Tommys or the nurses. Blame this goverment who have lied about the health service. Lets hope for another election soon.

    • I am grateful every day that he’s alive! And I thanked the surgeon every time I saw him. I can’t think of a better use for public money than caring for the sick and vulnerable. And I do blame the government for cuts. I’m happy to join all the campaigns to save the NHS.

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