Surrey is no county for old men.

Just four months ago Uncle Roy celebrated his 90th birthday with a family lunch at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Two weeks later Daphne took him to the RAF Museum on the former Hendon Aerodrome where, to the astonishment of the staff, this life-long flying enthusiast managed to clamber into the cockpit of a Spitfire. And to get out of it again…

How long ago that all seems today. Most of the past three months have been spent in St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey. In that time he has lost four stone, come close to renal failure, lost 80% of his sight after a stroke and suffered repeated dehydration and diarrhoea.

I visited him last week and was appalled by what I saw. His food and water were way out of arm’s reach at one side of the room. When Daphne visited the day before she had to don gown and gloves to reduce infection risk. I asked two nurses if I needed to do the same and received blank looks and shrugged shoulders. On the cabinet alongside his bed was a form that he had been asked to sign. Roy was fretting about this, mainly because he couldn’t see to read it. In his mind this form had assumed massive importance – so much so that he wanted his daughter, who holds Power of Attorney for him, to rush back from the South West of France to sign it for him.

I picked up the form – a nonsense piece of GDPR bureaucracy asking for his consent for the hospital to share his medical records with the care home that they were hoping to send him to. So none of these degree qualified nurses was able to either deal with this, explain it to him in a way that would have calmed him down or attach it to an email and send it to his daughter?

I couldn’t see a pen anywhere in the room so I wandered the ward for ages looking for a nurse from whom I could borrow a biro and hold Roy’s hand on the dotted line. When I eventually found one the cold response was ‘what do you want a pen for?’ ‘So that Roy can sign a form’ I replied through gritted teeth. ‘What form?’ said the winner of Bedside Manner of the Year. ‘The form you carelessly left for this almost blind man to sign and which he is fretting about as we speak’ said I. She rummaged in her smock and handed me a biro stolen from Barclays Bank. So that’s where the NHS goes for customer service training…

Then came the conference of social workers to determine the next steps in the treatment plan for this desperately ill man. In front of him, the very first thing the social worker said was ‘you’ll probably need to sell your home to cover the cost of the care fees’. Like many people of Roy’s generation, spending the kids’ inheritance has never been on the agenda. He does without little luxuries because he wants to maximise what he leaves behind for his children and grandchildren. So the last thing he needs to hear in his current state is that he may have to eat into that inheritance.

What she said may be true, albeit a damning indictment of political leadership in the social care system, but what breath-taking insensitivity to mention it to his face! Surely that could have been discussed in a private conversation with his daughter?   

What use is all the technology in the world and the highest qualified nurses we’ve ever had if they don’t give a toss about their patients? The NHS is fatally flawed. It is unfit for purpose and needs to be creatively destroyed before it can be re-launched in a completely new model.

Coincidentally, one of the books I have brought with me to re-read on holiday is Dominic Frisby’s magnus opus, Life After The State. It may be six years old but its message remains as poignant as ever. In a chapter entitled National Health Sickness Dominic explains why the world’s fifth largest employer, with 1.7 million staff, is failing is so mightily;

“Recent ONS statistics show that 43 NHS patients starved to death last year: 111 died of thirst (Roy could soon be added to this number), 287 were recorded as malnourished and 558 dehydrated when they died; 78 were killed by bedsores and 21,696 had infected wounds at the time of their death.”

Those numbers are scary enough, but I am sure the army of NHS managers could spin a hundred excuses to rationalise them away. But the unavoidable accusation of total failure is contained in this further quote from Dominic’s book:

“The most compelling failure of the NHS is simply this: since the founding of the NHS in 1948, the difference between the life expectancy of the richest and poorest people in Britain has kept on increasing. It accelerated at precisely the time (1997 to 2007) when most money was spent on the health service. Whatever else it might have done, the NHS has not equalized life chances, as it set out to do. The opposite has happened. Health inequality has risen. In this regard, the NHS must be considered a failure.

Especially if you’re a 90 year old man with the misfortune to live within the catchment area of St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey.

Until next time

Graham

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