Seán Moncrieff: A car park of trolleys, people screaming ... just another Friday in A&E

It’s only when you’ve spent a night in A&E that you realise what a wreck our health system is

Signage for the accident and emergency (A&E) department at Causeway Hospital in Northern Ireland. Picture date: Monday January 18, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER Coronavirus Ambulance. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

I’ve mentioned my gammy leg a couple of times before, so let’s not go on about that. Suffice to say that I ended up in A&E.

In some respects, it wasn’t what I expected. There were people in the waiting room, but it wasn’t jammed: it was always possible to get a seat. It was a Friday, but there were no drunk people. And the atmosphere, while not exactly jolly, was quite convivial. People spoke on the phone to family members. I’ll get something from the vending machine. Don’t know how long I’ll be waiting. It’ll be grand.

But as the day wore on and turned into night, after too many bags of crisps from the vending machine, when backs began to stiffen and backsides became numb from the plastic chairs, the mood began to darken. Occasionally, a doctor would emerge from behind the sliding door and announce a name, but the gap between the announcements seemed to be getting longer. There was a period of a couple of hours when no names were called at all. More and more people went to reception to ask when they might be seen, to ask if they could leave and come back (they couldn’t). Strangers began sharing their symptoms with each other. Possible broken arm. Possible brain bleed. Possible stroke. Two men ruminated on how the Irish are too easy-going, putting up with all this. Wouldn’t happen in France, one said. There would be a riot.

Past midnight, the conversation had all but stopped. The only sound came from an unwatched television bolted to a wall. We were stuck in a bleary-eyed limbo.


On either side of me, I could hear patients relaying obscenely intimate details of their medical lives, their leaking wounds, their depression, what medication they were on

There was no clock in the waiting room, and at that point my phone had died, so I can’t tell you at what time I was eventually brought into the examination area. They put me in a cubicle and told me to wait. I looked out at a car park of trolleys: frail elderly people on oxygen, a man who may have had dementia made loud racist comments to one of the nurses, a woman with a fractured leg screamed with the pain, a young man who had evidently tried to take his own life, a woman whose legs were covered with huge blisters and couldn’t bear the sensation of having them covered with a sheet.

On either side of me, I could hear patients relaying obscenely intimate details of their medical lives, their leaking wounds, their depression, what medication they were on. In this place, the physical and psychological pain was magnified by the ripping away of all dignity. The system, or lack of it, reduced everyone to a set of symptoms; to pieces of meat to be sewn up.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true, that the people who work in these settings are nothing short of magnificent: not just for their skill and compassion, but also for their ability to absorb a bombardment of questions. If a doctor or nurse walked the length of this area, they would be stopped half a dozen times. Sometimes they could answer the question on the spot, sometimes they would promise to investigate and come back: but in the course of that investigation, they would be asked another half dozen questions. They always came back, but it could take hours to do so.

Because my phone had died, Herself had come to the conclusion that I had as well. She turned up minutes before I was discharged. I had entered the hospital at three in the afternoon. I left at seven the next morning. Relatively speaking, I had it easy.

Another cliché: every member of the Oireachtas, every senior official in the HSE and the Department of Health should be forced to experience this. By themselves. In pain. Worried, frustrated and uninformed. Feelings aren’t facts, but it’s only until you’ve felt what it’s like that you fully realise what a wreck our health system is.