I returned home yesterday following a six day stay in hospital. I was admitted after months of excruciating abdominal pain attributed to gallstones and gallbladder attacks. At a time when the future of our NHS seems scarily uncertain, I wanted to shed a little bit of light on the care I received while I was admitted.
Gallstones are incredibly common – Google tells me that one in ten people in the UK experience them. As a result, gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy) is also fairly common. Gallstones themselves can cause severe pain but aren’t often life threatening, although they can cause some other issues. In my case, a stone had pinged out and hit my pancreas causing acute pancreatitis which is a more serious condition – in some cases it can be life threatening. I was admitted to hospital with acute pancreatitis and gallstones with the aim of getting rid of both the pancreatitis and my gallbladder!
From what I can tell, the waiting times you experience within the NHS are a bit of a postcode lottery. I had already been experiencing the pain of gallbladder flare ups for several months and had found my way onto the back of a surgical waiting list before last week’s ordeal. When I started experiencing intolerable pain last week, I was hearing horror stories of twelve hour waits in A&E on the radio. I got myself to my nearest A&E department and was relieved to be triaged within ten minutes, and seen by a doctor within an hour. A nifty TV screen in the A&E waiting area kept everyone up to date with how many admissions there were at any time, how many people were currently waiting to be seen, and how long the wait was.
My care was possibly made quicker and easier by the fact that I already knew what was causing my pain and was able to give the doctor a pretty thorough run down of all my recent medical history, including the results of recent CT and ultrasound scans. It was quickly determined that I needed to be assessed by a surgical team as my gallbladder really needed to come out. The doctor whose care I was in managed to get me an emergency surgical assessment appointment the following morning. He gave me an IV course of antibiotics and then let me go home before my surgical assessment. He was totally lovely, listened to everything I had to say, and made me feel very well looked after.
The next morning I was promptly seen by the surgical assessment team who took my blood – it didn’t take long for them to detect high infection levels and pancreatitis for which I needed to be admitted. I had to wait maybe four hours before a bed became available, but the whole time I was waiting, doctors and nurses would check in on me regularly and make sure I was okay – always with a smile and friendly attitude.
The real magic happened once I was admitted and given a bed. Being in hospital often makes me inexplicably weepy – I think being away from my family for any extended period of time makes my brain do funny things. I was feeling fragile and incredibly vulnerable, and I had a constant barrage of doctors and nurses taking bloods, trying to get cannulas in my arm, giving me injections, and various other things. Despite all of this, and how busy the hospital was, every single medical professional I came into contact with treated me with nothing but kindness and warmth. Even when I had tears streaming down my face for no good reason, they were understanding and patient with me.
After a few hours of being on a triage ward, I was moved to somewhere quieter. Immediately nurses came to introduce themselves and made me feel at home. It was New Year’s Eve, and it felt wrong to be away from loved ones and shut away on a ward, but the continuous offers of cups of tea and friendly smiles really took the edge off.
From the beginning, nurses were adamant that I should press by buzzer if I should need anything at all. They assured me that nothing was an inconvenience for them and that they would help me in any way they possibly could.
My pain levels were well controlled during my hospital stay, and I was mainly on the ward to make sure my infection levels came down before I could have surgery. This meant that I wasn’t actively in pain for most of my stay – a bit of an odd feeling. I was able to chat to nurses, and we got talk, laugh, and share stories. The three other ladies on my ward were in a similar situation and we actually became friends over the course of the couple of days we were cooped up together!
Every day I was visited by surgeons who would check in with me – I saw a few different surgeons and they were absolutely lovely. They made sure I knew exactly what my blood tests were showing and they kept me in the loop in a way that I could understand. Again, I experienced nothing but kindness and they were always sure to answer any questions I had, no matter how silly they might have been.
On the day that I was finally called for surgery, nerves kicked in. I was well aware that gallbladder removal surgery is a very simple and low risk surgery, but it was still a scary prospect to me – especially as I would be going under general anaesthetic for the first time! As I was rolled down the surgical corridor on my trolley, the tears started flowing uncontrollably down my cheeks and I reverted to a scared five year old.
I arrived into the anaesthetic room where there were three people waiting for me to help get me off to sleep. I was really trying to put on a brave face and act all of my thirty years, but wasn’t doing a very good job. These three people made everything so much better. They could all see that I was scared, and they tried their very best to make the whole experience better for me, and for that, I am eternally grateful! They were so much more than anaesthesiologists.
The gentleman administering my anaesthetic gently explained what he was going to do. His voice was calm and soothing. Another gentleman explained that he was going to put sticky tabs on me for all the monitors I would be hooked up to. As he put the tabs on me, he did so with a friendly face and he chatted to me and made a few jokes – he got me laughing a bit through my tears. The lady in the room joined in with the chatting, but the thing I really appreciate was her just holding my hand. She let me nervously squeeze her hand – something I really needed at the time.
When we were ready, an oxygen mask was popped over my face and all three people in the room assured me that they would look after me. The jokey man told me to think about something nice as they were going to put me to sleep and it’d help me dream good dreams. I thought of my family and before I knew it I was out.
When I came round I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was whisked back to my ward where a nurse made me a hot chocolate and kept close tabs on me while I came round properly. I wasn’t allowed to walk myself to the toilet for a few hours after surgery as I was still high as a kite and probably wouldn’t have been very steady on my feet. This meant I got the joy of using a bedpan – something I have never had to use, and hope not to have to use again!
Being fresh out of surgery, I needed help with pretty much everything – going for that first post-op wee wasn’t even remotely dignified. The nurse on call came and helped me without batting an eyelid and I was so thankful to have care from such a wonderful team.
As the hours went by, nurses would come by to check on my pain levels and offer me pain relief whenever I needed it, as well as help me with things as small as reaching for something on my bedside and opening a window. They were all angels.
The day after my operation, I felt a million times better and was keen to return home to my family. The nurses all made sure I was ready to go home, and then helped me get discharged.
I never thought I would come away from almost a week in hospital feeling refreshed, but here I am. The care I received from everyone I came into contact with was absolutely wonderful, and I have never felt like I was in safer hands. I am so incredibly thankful for every one of the doctors, nurses, surgeons, and other members of NHS staff that helped to look after me. Honestly, I am so glad that I had access to NHS care and was able to be looked after so well. It terrifies me to think of a world where the only option is privatised healthcare, and having experienced the wonders of the NHS this past week, I can hand on heart say that we need to fight to keep this service and to make healthcare accessible for all.