Six bed unit in the spinal ward. I’m occupying the middle bed. Opposite is a patient named Paul. He has C5 injury of the spine and is worse off than me. His arms are weak and he is overweight. He is on copious amount of medication, taking nine tablet every eight hours. Stuff for neurological pain, heart condition, spasms and a few more thrown in for good measure. To my left is a patient called Malcolm. He is on diazepam, five milligrams three times a day. Takes it for spasm. Mellows him out. His locker is full up with John Smith’s bitter. Patients are not supposed to have alcohol stockpiled in their bedside lockers but friends smuggle it in. He is happy. Malcolm is always happy. He is my friend. I don’t know the other patients, except Dennis in the end bed next to Paul. He was admitted with bladder cancer and failing kidneys. His urine drainage bag is filled with blood. He can’t stop vomiting. Dennis is very ill but never complains. He never complains.
The surgical ward is a perilous place at night. Tonight the staff are at a minimum. On duty is the ward sister. She is accompanied by a bank nurse, who knows nothing about spinal injury, and two male orderlies. If two or three patients simultaneously develop problems overnight, the staff wouldn’t be able to cope. There are two six bed units, four two bed units and four single bed units. Every bed is used. To perform their duties properly, nights have to run like clockwork. Little room for manoeuvre.
Lights out at 11 o’clock. Paul starts to scream. He is in terrible pain. His cries go on and on. Eventually the ward sister picks up the phone and calls the duty doctor. Nearly an hour later he comes onto the ward, offers Paul some paracetamol. “Can’t give you anything stronger. You are taking too much medication as it is.” But the screaming continues. Patients begin to complain. “We’re trying to sleep here. Can’t somebody shut him up?”
The staff grow tired of pacifying him. I hear the ward sister tell the orderlies to ignore him. She means it. Still the screaming continues.
Malcolm asks for the curtains to be pulled around his bed, as if it would somehow shut out the noise. Other patients do the same. I want my curtains left open. I’m keen to know what’s going on.
Duty doctor ambles off the ward. There is nothing more he can do here. He has the whole spinal unit to care for, many other wards and seriously ill patients.
Paul continues to cry and scream. The staff continue to ignore him.
It is now around 3 o’clock in the morning. I haven’t had a jot of sleep. I don’t want to sleep. I’m concerned about Paul. He is still screaming in pain.
Suddenly he starts talking garbled nonsense. He cannot form coherent sentences. It’s like he’s speaking in a foreign language. The tone of his voice changes. He thrashes his head about, shaking it from side to side. He is frightened. He cannot understand what is going on, why he can’t talk.
The ward sister rushes to his bedside. She is followed by all three staff. They ask him if he is alright. Paul tries to answer. He tries desperately to communicate. But his words are gibberish. Nobody can understand a thing he is saying.
The staff are worried, not so much about Paul but more for themselves and what they have done. I am worried. The noises Paul makes are hideous. I feel deeply pessimistic. I have a horrible feeling that he is not going to survive. One of the staff looks at me and shakes his head. The rest whisper amongst themselves. I know they are concocting a story.
All of the patients except me have curtains round their beds. I’m the only one who has witnessed everything, what’s going on and what has gone on. I know that Paul has been snubbed. I know the ward sister told the rest of the staff to ignore him. I know they have passed him by. I know that his cries and screams have fallen on deaf ears. I know the staff regret what they have done. They are in the wrong and they know it. They could face charges of negligence. Paul has had a stroke. It is obvious. The nursing staff know it. They also know they have contributed to it.
Staff nurse rushes to the desk and telephones the duty doctor. She returns and asks me if I want my curtains pulled around the bed. I tell her no. “Would you like your bed moved into one of the side rooms?” I say no. She tells me that I will get no sleep if I stay where I am. “You will be better off out of the ward.” I remain steadfast. I tell her I don’t want to be moved, and warn her not to pull the curtains around my bed. She wants me out of the way. She knows I have seen and heard everything. I am a witness to her conspiracy and incompetence.
The duty doctor arrives. He examines Paul, then phones the Critical Care Unit. Soon the staff are wheeling Paul’s bed from the bay and pushing it towards the corridor. They are taking him to the lift.
The night staff go off duty at 8 o’clock. I wait for the ward doctor to appear. He arrives at approximately 8:30 AM. I beckon him over. He these young, in his early twenties I’d guess, fresh out of university. He has curly hair and ruddy cheeks.
“Do you know how Paul is?” He has no idea. I tell him what went on in the night. Explain how Paul was screaming with pain. How the ward sister had told the night staff to ignore him, which they did. “He screamed for hours,” I say.
The ward doctor appears to listen. He thanks me for the information and says he will take it to the right people. But he never does. It is buried. The incident is never mentioned again. No further questions are raised or asked.
Three weeks later I am out of bed, downstairs and wheeling towards the Critical Care Unit. I enter the ward. Many patients our on ventilators and looking very ill. Paul is in a room of his own. He looks a lot better. He can speak coherently. Smiling, he says he doesn’t remember much about the incident. I’m relieved he doesn’t appear to have suffered any permanent damage to his brain.
Two days later the day staff wheel Dennis’s bed from the six bed unit and into a side room. His family gather around him. It is his last night on earth. I never once heard him complain. What a man. Good on you Dennis.
This account is factual. The spinal unit is lauded as a ‘place of excellence’. The hospital is one of the most prestigious in the country. I nicknamed the ward: Death Row.