Public hospitals work in the darkest hours

September 27, 2015
hospital bed

In the gloom of the Intensive Care Unit, when depression sets in at 2 am, I found myself listening to the conversation between the nurse and the newly arrived patient in the bay next to mine.

“Now can I shine my torch in your eyes?” asked the nurse in his soft, lilting Indian accent. “I’d be pretty stupid,” said the patient, in his stick-dry retort that marked him as a country man, “if I put myself in hospital and refused treatment.”

I was in an hallucinatory state the last time I was in an intensive care unit over a year ago. But this time, after brain surgery, and a dose of steroids that helped keep me awake for nearly 48 hours, I was alert to the miracle of our public health system. Yes, I know it’s plagued by duplication and inefficiency, and could be improved. But it’s precious; it works when you’re very sick. It works for the rich and the poor. When I hear Treasurer Scott Morrison argue the need for spending cuts and dismiss the need to raise revenue, I fear for the public hospitals. Spending cuts always hurt the poor.

It’s not just the extraordinary skill and care of the nursing and medical staff in intensive care that’s so impressive, it’s the nourishment you get from being with ordinary, brave, and frequently elderly patients that’s life-affirming.

“So are these curtains sunproof?” my new neighbour asks the nurse of the hospital issue curtains that separate us. “I might get something like this for the veranda at the property. Break up the monotony.” We’re all here because something’s wrong with our brain. How can he be so chirpy? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry so I try both. I feel better. I hear a short version of his life story, ex-shearer, carer….And then he drops into a deep, rackety sleep. Lucky man.

Since I retired from a job that put me in contact with people from all walks of life, I sometimes feel as if my world has shrunk a little to people just like me. But in ICU and later in the four-bed ward with a woman in her 80s, a man in his 70s, and a young man in his early 20s, I am once again in the midst of life unlike my own.

The courage of ordinary, sick people is awe-inspiring. They talk about giving their kids $100 towards buying a car, how to pay for the taxi home from hospital. The elderly woman, also from the country, is a role model of independence, humour, good sense and resilience. “I’m coming over to say hello,” she says. I want to be just like her, if only I can. It has happened to me once before – when I was 46 and in a public hospital for a breast cancer operation. I found myself sharing a ward with several women from different generations. And in a memorable night, we all talked about our lives and hopes and fears.

Since then I’ve known the immense comfort of the private room in the private hospital. I’m privileged. I have choice. When you’re in a lot of pain, and need an extended stay, it’s a good place to be. You don’t necessarily want to see another patient – and you most assuredly don’t.

But what I gained from my three nights in one of Sydney’s best public hospitals was more than just excellent care. (And yes I did pay to have my own choice of surgeon though in the end the choice is hardly a considered one.)

Being with the other patients has helped my recovery process, made me feel grateful, reminded me of what so many contend with, especially of how the older generation tend not to be whingers, are made of hardier stuff. It’s a life lesson.

It also gave me enormous respect for the staff. Some patients are a little crazy, some wander with dementia, the cultural issues are complex. I have no idea how the staff copes with such patience. And it remains a mystery how in my experience, from admission to discharge, the system worked so efficiently.

Yes, improve the public hospital system. But in doing so, in searching for savings, Mr Morrison, don’t tear it down, don’t destroy another public institution. Don’t take short cuts with training our nursing staff. Don’t let the dollar rule. Take great care of our public hospitals. When you’re sick it’s such a re-assurance to know you have the best of care. Everyone, rich and poor, deserves nothing less.

Just remember should you find yourself in the public ward, the food looks as if it will kill you. But it’s probably not what’s going to do you in.

What’s your experience of public hospitals? Please leave a comment.

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