Magazine article The Spectator

Must Hospitals Ration Tea and Sympathy?

Magazine article The Spectator

Must Hospitals Ration Tea and Sympathy?

Article excerpt

Nurses might be overworked but they could still be kind

Sometimes I have a quiet time as a voluntary hospital visitor. But recently I've witnessed a lot of distress from people of all ages and types. The other week I saw an elderly Middle Eastern man bent over a bin in a ward corridor, crying almost uncontrollably. I asked him the problem and he stuttered out that he had been watching his daughter sleeping, and he believed she was going to die.

I went off to find a nurse as I felt I didn't know enough about his situation or hers to help. The nurse wouldn't tell me anything due to patient confidentiality. I returned alone to the man and tried to sympathise. He managed to say that his daughter had food poisoning. I didn't think that sounded too bad, but he added that his wife had died of it. It seemed complicated, but there was no one to ask, no one came to calm him down and there was no place we could go for privacy.

The same day I met a young Muslim from Southall, west London, with a chest infection aggravated by alcohol abuse. He'd been sent here as a child to live with his grandmother; his mother stayed in Pakistan. He qualified as an accountant, but depression and drink had left him jobless and homeless. 'If I leave here,' he told me, 'I have nowhere to go.'

I asked a nurse about him. She said he had 'plenty of relatives in Southall', which he did. From what he'd told me he didn't like any of them much. She said they'd 'offered him their support' so 'the housing department is not interested'. And neither was she.

We are constantly told that the NHS is wrestling with its budgets. We all know that there is no money left for any extras for patients, such as toothpaste, bed socks, chiropodists and good food. But it often seems to me that tea and sympathy are also rationed.

Last week I met an old lady, very intelligent and well spoken, who has developed a bad skin condition on her legs. She found herself hardly able to walk, a very scary thing for old people who live alone. While she's been in hospital her landlord has decided to sell her rented home and given her notice to quit. Her son wants her to find a care home near him, in Hastings, but before that she has to recover in a care home locally, in Acton. It's all a great upheaval and she is naturally anxious.

The day I saw her, the offer of a place in a local home had been cancelled. She had no idea why, or where she was going. I went off to make her tea, trying to remember the code for the kitchen door -- the catering women are often bad-tempered -- and to try to root out some facts for her.

'She's going to be assessed today,' the nursing sister told me crossly. 'I've already told her once, so you don't need to tell her again.' The nurse had the attitude that she should be quiet and stop fussing. There was no time to attend to her fears. Opposite an old Irish lady was sitting in her chair, ready as she thought to go home and waiting to be collected. I inquired and found she was not due to go anywhere. The nurses were exasperated at her stupid confusion.

I moved on to a ward where there are a lot of old ladies, demented and sane mixed together. I've visited one lady several times but as she is almost stone deaf I can't do anything except make her tea and hold her hand. She has a hearing aid at home; a friend of hers visits and could bring it in. Twice I have asked a nurse to pass on the message. I know it's never going to happen. The nurses won't have the time or the will. …

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