Next Wednesday, the funeral will take place of my sister, Pat. It will be a simple affair, attended by her family, friends, and workmates from the branch of the supermarket where she worked for nearly 20 years. When Pat wrote a diary chronicling the treatment she received at the hands of the National Health Service and Hillingdon Hospital during the last few weeks of her life, she didn't do it as a form of therapy to keep her mind off the cancer attacking her lungs. She certainly didn't do it as a way of earning any money. Or as a way to achieve instant fame - she was very reluctant to admit to anyone that she and I were related, and loathed the idea of being in the limelight. But her account of dying on the National Health Service, enduring the indignity of being placed on a mixed ward, attached to an oxygen cylinder, unable to escape the attention of a naked man masturbating at the end of her bed, or a callous nurse who refused to give her a second pillow, and a hospital that sent her home in a delivery van, has touched a chord with thousands of ordinary people all over the country.
Since they were printed in The Independent on the day that she died, on 16 November, Pat's experiences have been echoed in phone calls, emails, letters and messages of sympathy, in the radio, on television, and in the national press. A sense of outrage prevails, uniting people of all ages and income brackets. Suddenly, we all want to know - how can the people running our health service have got it so wrong? It's our taxes that pay for the NHS - and the comfortable salaries of the men and women in charge who are responsible for meeting targets and ensuring that the service is efficient. Somewhere along the way, Pat discovered that jargon has taken over from humanity and that phrases such as "delivery" and "cost-effective" don't necessarily mean that terminally-ill men and women are going to be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve and have paid for.
Pat would have been delighted that her diaries have sparked a debate about mixed-sex wards, lack of co-ordinated care and the management priorities, which see hospital bureaucrats put target before patients. She was absolutely down to earth, pragmatic and plain-speaking. We had that, and a strong sense of humour, in common. She never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her - and the wrong medicines, the lack of information about her medication, the ineptitude of the agency supplying carers, and the fact that a special emergency phone line for terminally-ill patients took up to two hours to send a doctor, just reduced her to a wry smile. If Pat had been running Hillingdon Hospital the way she ran her department at the supermarket, things would have been very different.
Last Sunday, I wrote about the day she lay dying in a room off a noisy mixed ward, when the hospital executives called a hasty meeting (in a store room) with family members, at which they apologised and offered Pat a bed in a hospice. After a delay in obtaining an ambulance, my sister was finally transferred to Mount Vernon hospital and the Michael Sobell centre, where she spent her last eight hours in peace. On Monday, the Daily Mail followed up the story, and the Evening Standard reprinted Pat's diaries and my column across their centre pages, calling her treatment "appalling". Hillingdon Hospital told the Standard they had started a full inquiry into Pat's case, and offered her family their sympathies.
In fact, Pat's husband, Michael, had heard nothing from the hospital - other than a distressing phone call from a clerk asking if it was OK for them to collect their bed and oxygen cylinder. Michael was distraught that the hospital had apologised to him through the national press, but not in person. On Tuesday morning, the Daily Mail too reprinted Pat's diaries and my column and ran a leader page article by Bel Mooney headlined "Wards of Shame". Ten years earlier, Blair had boasted that "it shouldn't be beyond the wit of politicians to end mixed-sex wards". Those words were coming back to haunt New Labour. I went on GMTV that morning and talked to presenter Lorraine Kelly about Pat's experiences. They were inundated with phone calls and emails from appalled viewers, many of whom had suffered similar experiences.
I was receiving letters and emails from angry men and women who had seen their elderly relatives endure mixed wards. On Tuesday evening, nearly five days after Pat died, Michael received a hand-delivered letter from Hillingdon Hospital apologising for what had happened, telling him about their inquiry, inviting him to talk to them, and revealing that it would be completed by Christmas. They would not be disclosing anything to me, without his permission. Fair enough.
On Wednesday, the hospital wrote to The Independent, after the paper had printed a news story entitled "Pressure grows to end single sex wards", feebly claiming they had been denied a right of reply. Hardly! Tactlessly attacking the dead, the chief executive wrote: "I will leave it up to your readers to make up their own minds about what has been the motive behind this public trial". As I wrote in reply: our agenda was hardly a secret - to make sure the National Health Service delivers what it promises and the pen-pushers realise it's time to start putting patients first.
On Thursday, the Today programme was inundated with emails and phone calls, and John Humphrys submitted the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, to a grilling about the fact that mixed wards still caused immense distress. On Friday, my sister's crusade was on the front pages of The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, as well as on the news pages of the Daily Mail. Letters continued to pour in from taxpayers who have decided that it's time to stand up and say enough is enough. Patricia Hewitt might claim that in 99 per cent of hospitals, there are no mixed- sex wards, but the figures don't add up. And mixed- sex assessment units, where patients are sent from A&E for up to 48 hours, are clearly no place for the elderly or the terminally ill. Evidence suggests that time and time again, patients remain in these units far longer than a couple of days. According to the Telegraph, one in five patients is currently enduring mixed wards - hardly the rosy picture painted by Ms Hewitt.
Patient power is finally fighting back.
Pat would have been delighted.Reuse content