first person

Published: 05/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5812 Page 21

The agony of David Griffiths' gallstones was put into perspective by a night on a trolley in an accident and emergency department Ihave joined that ever-increasing band of men and women who have spent a night, or part of a night, on a trolley in the accident and emergency unit of an NHS hospital.

My wife, Pat, and I are retired, but we are still farming in a small way. One evening towards the end of lambing, I went out after tea to shift some lambs and ewes around.

A pain under my lower ribs began - mildly at first, then with increasing severity. I went indoors to sit down but almost immediately had to dash to the toilet to be sick. I was sick several times, but it brought no relief from the pain.

My wife began to worry and rang the emergency services. A paramedic came quickly, asked questions and examined me for heart trouble.

'How is the pain on a scale of one to ten?' It was hard to say. The thumbscrew and the rack must be ten, so, with British fortitude, I settled for 'five to six'.

Two more paramedics came round with an ambulance. All seemed satisfied my heart was sound. Gallstones began to be the favourite diagnosis.

They decided to take me to the nearest hospital, 15 miles away. The paramedics were excellent - humane, sympathetic, gentle and humorous. Not that I was in much of a mood for jokes.

The pain was as bad as ever and the ambulance felt as if it was travelling on iron-shod, unsprung wheels.However, discomfort is relative, as I found out when we arrived at the hospital and I was transferred to a trolley.

I was in that state where neither sitting up nor lying down brings relief. Sensors were stuck all over me and plugged in. I was told to lie still.

The ante-room I was in was screened off from four others.

In one, someone died; in another, an elderly woman on oxygen begged for water and was told not to get excited because she was sending up her blood pressure.

A young doctor came.He asked some questions and said he thought I should be admitted for further tests.My trolley was moved and parked among a dozen more. For an interminable length of time - perhaps four hours - nothing happened. There seemed to be a chronic shortage of staff except for those filling in forms and cleaning the floor.

My trolley was eventually shunted to x-ray.

'You have had a hip replacement.'

'Yes, nine years ago.'

'Who did it?'

'Mr Hutchison.'

'He made a good job of it.'

It was good to arouse some interest, even if it was of a technical nature and had little bearing on the gallstones.

I was returned to the others still in need of attention.One patient's face was a mask of blood - he protested it only needed washing off.Another, surely old enough to have known better, boasted he had obtained his injury in a judo fall.

My gallstones seemed too mundane to mention. But they hurt.They hurt like hell.

Another doctor wheeled my trolley into a side ward.The same examination, the same questions.

He couldn't see any reason to admit me. 'Can you get yourself home?' he asked.

I was staggered.The paramedics had advised me to bring pyjamas and a toothbrush as they were sure I would be staying. It was 2am.

'It will be difficult before morning, ' I pointed out.

'Are you from a residential home?' he asked. 'Are there friends or family who could fetch you?'

The thought of waking anyone at that time was too much. 'I'll have to get a taxi, ' I said. 'The desk will help, ' he replied.

He also handed me some codeine - the only useful thing anyone did for me at the hospital.

I scraped together£20 for the unexpected taxi fare and at 3am I was shouting weakly under our bedroom window.My wife, who was dreaming that I would be tucked up in a hospital bed, eventually woke up and let me in.

Definitely a night to forget. I am now waiting for an operation.

David Griffiths farms in Leicestershire.