A week ago, I had my gallbladder – and the numerous large gallstones within it – removed. For geographical convenience, the procedure was performed at Basildon University Hospital, part of the beleaguered Basildon and Thurrock NHS Trust. It wasn’t my first encounter with the hospital – I was born there, I’ve had migraines and disc prolapses treated there – and I doubt it will be my last. It was, however, possibly the best.
Speaking as the owner of long-standing and problematic phobias of both hospitals and needles, the experience was never going to inspire feelings of hope and contentment. No-one likes going to hospital, of course, but my fear was liable to make me tense, anxious, and, regrettably, unco-operative toward the medical staff treating me. To give this some perspective, previous visits have demonstrated that it requires no fewer than four qualified, experienced clinicians to insert a cannula into the back of my hand. I was never going to be Basildon’s biggest cheerleader, and stood a decent chance of becoming their fiercest critic.
In the weeks immediately preceding my visit to the hospital, Basildon and Thurrock NHS Trust were named in the enquiry resulting from the Mid Staffs investigation – one of five NHS Trusts to be singled out for special attention. Concerns were initially raised over the hospital’s “persistent high death rates”, but as the story progressed, former patients came forward with tales of unchanged dressings, unheeded toilet requests, missed medications and Legionella outbreaks.
None of this inspired me with much confidence as the date of my operation drew closer. Gallbladder removal – or Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy, as it’s known to professionals – is a relatively commonplace procedure, but is not without risk. An unexpected bleed or overly large gallbladder can compel the surgeon to move from keyhole surgery to an open procedure, increasing healing time and necessitating a longer hospital stay. Given the reports circulating at the time, this wasn’t a possibility I was relishing. As it turns out, and to my considerable relief, the procedure went well.
It now remains only for me to credit the staff of Basildon Hospital and the extended NHS Trust for ensuring that I’ve had such a smooth ride over the last nine months. My GP, for taking my bellyaching seriously, for pushing on for ever more diagnostic tests and anti-emetic drugs, and for calming me down when I thought I’d inherited the liver tumour that killed my grandfather. My surgeon, for answering my nervous questions when he was obviously up against it and keen to get on. His Senior House Officer, for talking to me like an intelligent, autonomous, informed adult with a degree of insight into their own condition. His registrar, for ensuring that the SHO had gone through absolutely everything I needed to know, and then drawing me a diagram so I really was perfectly clear.
Beyond the surgical team, there’s also the Day Unit nurses who clerked me in and helped me push my dodgy leg into the restrictive TED stocking. There’s the nurses in the blood clinic who looked after me when I began to faint in their chair, and didn’t even mind that needles make me panicky and subsequently ridiculous. There’s the Endoscopy team who were doubtless frustrated beyond the bounds of patience when they eventually abandoned all attempts to perform the biopsy I needed, particularly the nurse who succeeded with the cannula where six previous efforts had failed. There’s the doctor in the ultrasound clinic who finally confirmed a diagnosis of gallstones, showed me them on the screen, and looked only a little surprised when I laughed and told her I’d won a bet.
There’s the theatre nurse and anaesthetist who did everything they could to keep me calm when panic really set in, just before I went under. Most of all, there’s the nurse on Laindon ward who was there when I woke up, helped me to the lavatory when I was still dazed from the anaesthetic, carefully and attentively performed observations on six woozy patients every 30 minutes, brought me endless glasses of water, called my family to reassure them when she really didn’t have to, gave me the only painkillers my body would tolerate, kept me calm while she removed the cannulas from my hand and wrist, and discharged me professionally and patiently whilst running the ward single-handed and still called everyone “darling” like she meant it.
Basildon might be struggling as a hospital. It might be a victim of circumstance, or it might genuinely have a minority of staff members who are incompetent or lazy or both. In this way, it differs from no other workplace. But what it also has is staff who are dedicated to their jobs and their patients, even difficult patients like me. Many of their staff are probably overstretched and might feel underpaid, and many departments are likely underfunded and potentially understaffed sometimes, even if only due to occasional staff sickness. Basildon has its problems, but it also has a body of staff who perform difficult and often unpleasant jobs with professionalism, dedication and grace, and without whom all patients would be at a complete loss. When you denigrate Basildon Hospital, you denigrate them too.