BY MATTHEW CORRIGAN
Even now, more than nine years on, I can clearly remember the cold, dark evening of March 1st 2007. I arrived at my father’s care home expecting to find him unwell; Mum had been very concerned when we’d spoken earlier. Nothing, however, prepared me for the sight that greeted me as I knocked on the door and entered his room. Dad was lying face down on the bed, doubled up in agony. In an effort to alleviate the pain he had, as far as he was able, drawn up his legs beneath his body in a tortured facsimile of the foetal position. It was immediately obvious he needed urgent medical assistance. I asked the staff to call a doctor – Now.
I never did find out how long he’d been like that. It transpired he’d been seen by a GP several hours earlier and the staff had assumed all was well. The GP (who coincidentally sat on the board of the company formed to manage ‘out of hours’ care locally) had made a routine visit to the home and noted Dad seemed poorly. He had asked my dad if he ‘wanted’ to go to hospital but Dad (an 82 year old dementia-sufferer) had declined. Nobody thought to contact the family. Upon arrival, the out-of-hours doctor called for an ambulance. I asked him how it looked and he told me, gravely, “not good.” Two hours later I’d had enough of waiting and ‘phoned 999. The doctor’s request hadn’t been logged. An emergency ambulance was dispatched immediately and within minutes Dad was on his way to hospital. He had Pneumonia.
Dad survived. Against the odds, he recovered and lived for another three years before finally succumbing to his illness in the summer of 2010. His new nursing home was clean, the staff compassionate and able. Throughout this period he underwent numerous hospital admissions. The catalogue of errors (in two instances causing life-threatening injuries) made by the NHS would sound incredible were I to relate it. Of course there were complaints and of course – eventually – there was an internal inquiry of sorts, but it soon became evident I was fighting a battle I had very little hope of winning.
Bizarrely, upon being diagnosed with dementia a patient’s needs are no longer considered a medical problem. Sufferers are told they require ‘social care’, and must take their chance with a curious hybrid made up of local authority social services and various branches of the NHS. The myriad services involved in the care of the elderly are masters in the arts of denial and obfuscation. To effectively take on the bureaucratic machine could easily have become a full-time job. In fact, I don’t think it could be done by just one person – keeping up with the shifting departmental remits and name-changing alone would quickly prove overwhelming.
Complaints met a wall of silence as the professionals closed ranks and either denied or refused to accept responsibility for their numerous failures. The NHS is not above telling outright lies. Each time I was made to feel as if I was the guilty party – simply for having the gall to question what the hell was going on with the care of my father.
And so my reaction today, as yet another healthcare scandal hits the news, is one which will be familiar to anyone with first-hand knowledge of what the profession is capable of. An initial flash of anger followed by a rueful acknowledgement that nothing has changed. This time it’s care homes in Plymouth, exposed by the BBC’s Panorama. The Care Quality Commission has acted, albeit, as so often, belatedly. The CQC was meant to address the shortfalls of the CSCI, its deeply-flawed predecessor, but it looks as though the Titanic’s deckchairs have simply been shifted around.
The problem is cultural. For too long we’ve placed our healthcare system on a pedestal. Anyone daring to ask questions is treated as a heretic. To criticise hospital staff is to out oneself as wildly seditious. We’ve allowed the NHS – once among the best in the world – to occupy a moral eminence that borders on the religious. Is it really any wonder that they’ve started to believe their own hype?
We can be angered by the latest horror story, we can be sickened and we can be outraged. What we cannot be is surprised. Another round of platitudes, a few more ‘lessons will be learned’, a couple of rough interviews on Newsnight and it’ll be onto the next disgrace. The next episode of suffering and death at the hands of those charged with caring for the vulnerable.
Matthew Corrigan is a Country Squire Guest Writer and a superb author whose excellent novel OSPREY shines a satirical light on a dodgy politician with a flying wind turbine scam. His books can be found here