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With Mum’s declining health, trips to Accident and Emergency are happening more often. No one is under any illusions as to where this is all heading, it’s a case of treating what you can, when you can. Its coming to a stage where, as a family we know what to do when she falls ill, and how to do it. Nevertheless these places do have a life of their own.

Women due to give birth are told to put together a bag of clothes and toiletries for all they’ll need during labour and afterwards, With Mum its a Lever-Arch file with her medical notes, but in other respects her bag is similar. However there is another similarity, the time spent waiting. In our local hospital A & E department there’s a television with the sound down, and the subtitles on, tuned to BBC News 24. It’s handy, and I do appreciate the thought, but its impossible to watch for more than a few minutes.

Time of course is what you have plenty of. Every few seconds a dot-matrix board scrolls round telling you once again what the average waiting time is, last time it said 6 hours, although you seldom wait as long as it would suggest. It’s also a guide as to how much the car park will cost. Even Mum and Dad with their blue disabled badges can’t escape the charges, they just get a spot around 20 yards closer to A & E. Even the frequent-user scheme costs £10. We’ve learned to take books, the newspapers, I even took a small laptop once, anything to kill time, and dull your worry.

In recent times the “Triage” has been introduced. I had to look up that it’s derived from the French verb trier, meaning to separate, sift or select, and that it originated in the Napoleonic Wars as a means of prioritising scarce medical staff and supplies. In simple terms the wounded were separated into 3 categories

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

In the modern A & E this seems to have been adapted into a nurse categorising as follows

  • Get a doctor to look at now, life threatening
  • Return to waiting area, doctor to see in turn
  • Send home, with referral to GP.

We returned to the waiting area and carried on with our respective articles. In time (that word again) you begin to quietly observe the people waiting alongside you. Some are almost clichés, but each have their story to tell, and you have to try hard not to judge with so little of their stories known to you. These were all at our last wait at A & E….

The well-to-do mother with child with bump on his head. She sat there quietly with her son, who quickly worked out that crying wasn’t going to get him treated any quicker. They made no fuss and were still waiting when Mum finally was admitted after a 5 1/2 hour wait at 11.00pm, and we went home.

The sportsman/woman. There is always one of these. They are easy to track, as there’s usually a trail of mud leading to a pair of football/hockey/rugby boots. Again, usually quiet, other than the occasional wince.

The drunk. The staple of any A & E evening. Loud until they doze off, always placed somewhere near security. On one occasion one was thrown out for racially abusing a Sikh family waiting to get their infant child treated. The family said nothing, and I wish I had their restraint.

The student. Usually a group of them, and there’s one in the middle who’s as white as a sheet. Possibly ingested something they shouldn’t.

You watch from behind your newspaper, a Mr Paloma (apologies to Italo Calvino) of the local hospital. Of course eventually Mum does get seen and the slow pace of the A & E department quickened as diagnoses are made, and you enter the next world at the hospital. That’s the Emergency Assessment Unit, and that is another story. As I write this, Mum’s now recovering in a local community hospital, and we hope she can come home soon.

The photo is from the San Francisco Chronicle, it in turn is from Peter Nicks’ documentary “The Waiting Room.”