Paul Healy’s Week – 15th July 2016

Tattoos, trolleys and dignity denied
Paul Healy on a visit to A&E in Portiuncula which just happened to fall five years to the day since the closure of Roscommon A&E…
Every day

When the prisoner came in, handcuffed to the burly prison officer/Garda, at least it lifted the boredom levels a bit.

  He (the prisoner) had a hairstyle like that footballer, Balotelli, and he had tattoos on his head, like that boxer, Mike Tyson.

  We were about two hours in the waiting room at Portiuncula A&E by this stage, and the arrival of a prisoner would pass a few more minutes for us.

  It was last Monday, July 11th. It’s funny how these things go. Five years ago to the day – July 11th, 2011 – they closed the doors of Roscommon A&E.

  Five years on, to the day, we had to call to its successor, the Urgent Care Centre, for a minor matter, which would require our son getting an X-ray.

  We arrived at ‘urgent care’ in Roscommon at about 1 pm. There was only one other patient there. Within minutes, he was off home.

  The staff were very nice, as ever, but there was a bit of confusion as to whether or not our minor matter could be dealt with. It remains one of the great questions of our time: What can be done in Roscommon Urgent Care Centre, and what can’t be done there?

  Today, we are advised by a nice nurse to go to a GP in town, who might then “send you back here for an X-ray.”

  So we went to a GP in town, my son and I, and the GP sent us back to hospital for an X-ray. To Portiuncula Hospital, not Roscommon Hospital. Oh dear.

  Happy 5th birthday, urgent care centre!

  Anyways, we had driven from our home on the Athlone Road to Roscommon Hospital, then on to the GP surgery in Roscommon town. Now we drove from the GP surgery past Roscommon Hospital, past our home, off towards Ballinasloe.  

  We got to Portiuncula at 2.50 pm, just before Liveline ended. What follows is not one of those epic, marathon waiting room stories, but it wasn’t great. The A&E waiting room was very busy, with about a dozen patients queuing ahead of us. Movement was slow, mainly, it seemed, because there was a constant influx of people from ambulances.

  We waited from 2.50 pm until we were called in at about 5 pm. Others were more frustrated than we were. At around 4 pm, two men told me they had been waiting since 11.30 that morning. Time moves very, very slowly in A&E waiting rooms. There is only so much small talk you can indulge in. How many times can you agree with the person beside you that the Connacht final was a terrible game?

  Still, the patients were patient, one young man reading on a tablet, a middle-aged woman next to him reading an actual book. A young man in a Barcelona shirt had The Sun newspaper. A woman in her 80s sat in her wheelchair, waiting. There was a cartoon showing on the telly. (At least it wasn’t Jeremy Kyle or Judge Judy, the television viewing that hospital patients are doomed to endure, from my observation over the years). 

  When the prisoner came in, most of us looked up and began to watch his movements with interest. He was young, covered in tattoos, including all over his head. Quite stylish ones on his head actually. He had two officers with him, one of them handcuffed to him, the other never more than a few feet away.

  The prisoners you see in A&E never seem to sit still and usually have too much to say when their details are being taken at reception. They always want to go to the toilet or get a cigarette. I suppose it’s no fun being handcuffed to a burly man, is it? Surely not! After a few minutes, this prisoner sat beside an old lady. She moved her handbag from one side of her chair to the other. The young man in the Barcelona shirt resumed reading The Sun. I chatted to two men about the health service. ‘It never changes’ we agreed. Bad Connacht final. Chaotic health service. I thought of all the ministers who have presided over the crisis. The ones I can trip off my tongue…Mary Harney. Micheal Martin. James Reilly. Leo Varadkar. Simon Harris. Before Minister Harris was born, his predecessors were solemnly telling us they would sort out our health service.

  Ambulances kept arriving. A group of about ten relatives, all good-humoured, appeared in a blur of activity and managed to gain entry to the actual A&E Unit. The prisoner went for a walk outside, with handcuffs and first officer in tow, with second officer walking three paces behind. I looked at the two men beside me. We agreed that we’re paying for it all. “It’s us that’s paying for that now.” Tattoo Man 1, Taxpayer 0.

  A younger woman came back from the coffee machine with a cuppa for the older woman who had been sitting beside the tattooed prisoner. The older woman got all animated and began to describe the prisoner’s haircut to the younger woman.

  We got called for the X-ray at about 5 pm. It’s a beautiful moment, that moment when they call you from amongst the solemn faces in a hospital waiting room. We had been looked after by a lovely nurse (a Rossie) earlier. Now the staff in ‘X-ray’ were just as kind. There were stickers for our five-year-old son, and lots of jokes.

  After getting the X-ray, we had to wait a little longer before being brought deep into the A&E Unit to get some feedback from a very nice doctor. It genuinely was like a scene from Casualty or Greys Anatomy. In terms of its layout, this is a typical A&E Department. A reception in the centre of the unit. Cubicles and small rooms all around. But there was hardly any space. Staff were weaving in and out, busy and committed, but what really stood out was the (mostly) old people on the trolleys, squeezed against walls, a pitiful sight. Dignity denied. Our old people pressed in against walls on trolleys in full view of strangers. The political establishment’s message to our elderly? Er…sorry. Younger relatives pressed tightly against the trolleys, checking their mobiles, silence and controlled clamour merging.

  By about 6.30 pm, we were ready for home, minor issue addressed. The staff, without exception, had been great – in both Roscommon and Ballinasloe. And in the GP’s! As we left the A&E Unit, I glanced back into the waiting room. Both of the men who had been waiting since 11.30 were still there. They were there seven hours at that point. They’d had their bloods checked, but were still waiting for follow-up attention. No sign of the prisoner that we were sponsoring. We were all prisoners of the (health) system in the afternoon in question.

  Back at our car, our son sat into his seat after his exciting day. I put €2 into the machine to lift the barrier and free our car back into the world. It was an honour to contribute two more euro to help the latest Health Minister try and sort out our health service.

  As I drove from the hospital grounds, I turned the radio on. A Dr. Hickey from Sligo was discussing a story from the previous day’s Sunday Business Post. It dealt with an alleged threat to the future of some A&Es, or at least to their trauma services. One of them was the one behind me: Portiuncula. To paraphrase tennis great John McEnroe, they cannot be serious! They came for Roscommon five years ago – surely they can’t come and take Portiuncula too?

  We drove home to Roscommon. Later, I passed the Urgent Care Centre. It was born five years ago today. It used to be our A&E. Thanks Enda. Thanks James. Thanks for nothing.