Sunday, 4 April 2010

“Your Child Looks Alright to me”

Typically above sentence should put parents at ease, especially when they hear it from A&E (Accident and Emergency) staff of a hospital, but, not us. We dread this sentence, thanks to few of our experiences with UK hospitals. To us, it looks like that our child will not get the attention his conditions demand.

Desi people (we Indians livings abroad call ourselves as Desis – pronounced as “They See”) have one common belief about UK. This is a great country to live and work in, as long as you don’t fall ill or nothing untoward happens to you or your family. Whenever someone in our family has sought urgent medical attention, we have faced a wall of incompetence – the local nurse or front end of NHS emergency services.

Three days ago, my son caught a nasty tummy bug and started vomiting. We started typical home remedies – 24 hours passed, there was no let up, 48 hours passed, and we cancelled our trip abroad and took extra care – but no letup. Today, when he couldn’t even retain plain water and almost collapsed on the floor, we panicked and rushed to Accident and Emergency and faced the wall of incompetence – yet again.

We were appalled by the insensitive responses given out by A&E staff in the name of opening conversation. While describing the past events we said “He hasn’t been able to retain any food or water from past 72 hours”. Any sensitive person would have said “Oh! Dear. Is that so?” But came a blunt reply “One can live for 45 days without food and water!” Followed by “Your child looks alright to me – go home and keep him hydrated”.

This begs a question – how should a sick child appear in order to get attention? We understand the sad state of NHS and lack of skilled labour in UK. Hence, we were not expecting a competent doctor to come running to see our sick child – although it is a fair expectation from A&E. But is a little empathy too much to ask, especially when one couldn’t help?

We then went to central children’s hospital – blaming ourselves as to why we preferred local A&E instead of far-off children’s hospital. We got a better response there. The nurse just “interviewed” us but started oral rehydration immediately. A doctor saw us just after 90 minutes (which is great by NHS standards), urine sample was tested and after nearly 3 hours we returned home with some hope of recovery.

In another past incident, we had to call up the local NHS surgery after my son developed an allergic reaction – like skin rashes – to an over the counter fever syrup. The nurse declared – over the phone – that it is chickenpox. She said “Don’t bring the child to the hospital. Come and collect the medicine when nobody is there at the hospital”. Now, how would you guess by when nobody will be there at the hospital? If nobody will be there at the hospital, who would then give the medicine to us? I think when they hear our accent, they probably assume that we have landed from a horrible country full of disease and famine. Sick Indian child with skin rashes, it is chickenpox then, easy peasy stereotype. Luckily, an Indian origin GP – a friend of a friend– helped us by diagnosing the condition correctly.

One case happened to me. I developed a severe, sudden, unprecedented ankle pain at 2 AM in the morning. It was the worst pain I had ever faced. We dialled 999 – the emergency number – they refused to come and see me as the case was not “life threatening”. They advised us to go to local A&E. That was understandable. We were preparing to ask a friend to drive us down to local A&E. But then came the phone call that tested my physical and mental stamina. It was from NHS Nurse – just to help me. She asked about my name, religion, of course ethnic background and went onto more and more complicated medical questions. My patience evaporated when we she asked, perhaps 14th question in her list, “Would you describe that the pain is due to a muscle pull?” At that time I didn’t know that it was actually tear/irritation of the Achilles tendon – very similar to the one which made David Beckham miss the World Cup. I replied in negative and tried to describe the nature of the pain, affected areas, the burning sensation etc. But, the nurse interrupted me and came back to the same question at least thrice “let me ask you again Mr. Pandit, would you describe that the pain is due to a muscle pull?” I asked her how should the “muscle pull” supposed to pain like. For which she said annoyingly “I don’t know I am not the one in pain.” Then I enquired as politely as possible that why she doesn’t then note down the answer and the pain “as described by the one in pain”? She didn’t seem to get my point; she simply reminded me that she was only trying to help me out. Help me? How? By not sending a paramedic and delaying my visit to local A&E? Coaxing me to declare that it was a muscle-pull when nobody knew what it actually was? Running through a checklist probably longer and more complicated than the one used to prepare an airplane for take-off?

I dread such emergencies – each time it happens to us I get caught up in a triangle of forces – the first force due to the physical pain or problem on hand; the second force induced by the frustration for having to deal with the NHS front end and the third force is the one from guilt – for consciously choosing to be in this situation.

Then comes the morning ... pain subsides, son smiles, we put all these behind ... until next time.

Isn’t that life? Or is it?