Maud Gifford ended her holiday in Devon in hospital with a fractured right leg needing a metal plate and 37 clips. But it was what happened next that really taught the 89-year-old widow what it is like to be old in Britain today.
South Devon Healthcare Trust has begun an urgent investigation into how she came to be strapped down in an ambulance, unable to move, for a seven-hour journey, and left with no food or water beyond what she paid for.
Mrs Gifford, who has been blind for the past decade, has written to the Independent on Sunday to express her outrage at the treatment she received two days after her operation.
The 330-mile journey from Torbay to her home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, was a nightmare. Strapped to a stretcher, she found herself unable to move during the journey. The seat for the ambulance attendant next to her stretcher remained empty for the entire journey. There was no means of contacting the driver or paramedic, who both sat in the driving cab with the glass partition closed.
Mrs Gifford's journey began at 6.30am. All she had with her was a bottle of water and some grapes. Three packets of sandwiches had been provided by the hospital, one each for her and the ambulance crew. Mrs Gifford says she was never offered hers.
"I realised as soon as we left and the partition was shut what it must be like to be an animal in a cattle truck," she said. "If a dog or a cow had been treated the way I was there would be huge protests from the animal-rights protesters, and quite rightly so."
The ambulance stopped twice, when she shouted to the crew that she needed to go to the lavatory. There were no facilities on board, so she had to use the public lavatories at service stations in Bristol and South Mimms. Mrs Gifford was hauled out of the doors at the back of the ambulance and into the public toilets, still strapped to the stretcher, where the ambulance crew, a man and a woman, helped her on to the lavatory for the disabled.
"I have never been so embarrassed," she says. "Fortunately, because I am blind, I was unable to see the crowds who were obviously watching me being carried in. But I am not deaf and I could hear the things they were saying: 'Doesn't she look ill. I don't think that woman is going to make it.' They can send men to the moon and they can go to the loo: you would have thought it possible for the same facilities to be provided for me between Torbay and Aldeburgh."
Mrs Gifford became increasingly hot in the ambulance and drank all the water she had brought. At one of the service stations she gave the driver her purse and he bought her some more.
"This is not about politics, but about people doing their job properly," she says. "It does not cost money to care about the patient. I know working in the heath service is difficult but it is there for the benefit of the patient. And I did not feel that was so in my case.
"I felt angry, but I am not a moaner. People either do their job or they don't. For most of the journey the crew smoked and chatted while listening to very loud pop music."
Mrs Gifford was born in Hackney, east London, and was once a Labour councillor in Billericay, Essex. She was for many years a senior administrator in a London hospital and has many friends and acquaintances who have worked as doctors and nurses. She says: "I have always fought for the underdog. Now I know what it is like to be the underdog. The way I was treated was appalling."
Caroline Hill, of South Devon Healthcare Trust, which provided the ambulance, said: "Our expectations of a long-distance transfer would be that the paramedic crew member would be in the back of the vehicle with the patient all the time, that a meal would be provided, and that the patient would be moved as required.
"It is normal for patients on routine ambulance transfers to be assisted to use public toilets on the route. Ambulances do not have toilets on board."
She added: "We are investigating the circumstances urgently. If our standards have not been met we would apologise unreservedly."
Mrs Gifford will celebrate her 90th birthday in style in June with her five daughters, one son, 25 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
She and her late husband, Kenneth, an electronics expert with the Ministry of Defence, survived the bombing of Coventry where he was involved with the early work on radar.
He died in 1991, the year that she became blind.
Despite her age Mrs Gifford makes collages out of magazine and junk mail which she sells for charity. She has being nominated for the Creative Britons Awards to be announced in June. Six winners will each receive £20,000, to donate to the arts project of their choice, and a specially commissioned award piece.
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