A public meeting organised this week to highlight serious overcrowding, and health and safety issues at the emergency department in South Tipperary General Hospital uncovered a litany of unsettling real-life experiences.
Harrowing accounts shared by members of the public who attended the meeting left others open-mouthed and shaking their heads in disbelief.
Some were emotional as they spoke of the fear and degradation their loved ones felt, while forced to wait on trolleys for several days in an overcrowded, noisy, emergency department.
Others spoke of their own personal experiences of this: of being fully clothed while on the trolley for days, unable to have a shower or change into pyjamas, sometimes without pillows or blankets or both, feeling cold, unable to sleep or just get adequate rest.
One person recalled witnessing a family’s raw grief as they cried in a busy, public corridor following the death of their loved one. She too had been waiting on a trolley in the hospital’s thoroughfare before being wheeled into a resuscitation room, where she passed away. Another former patient refused to take a shower because it was blood stained for a number of days, and despite raising it with staff, it remained uncleaned.
Another former patient spoke of the substandard food served to her while she waited for four days on a trolley. On her first night in the emergency department she received no food at all, while sausages and a chips were served to her over the following three nights.
Approximately 60 people attended the emotional meeting in Cahir Community Hall on Monday evening last, organised by independent TD Mattie McGrath, and supported by the Save Our Acute Services committee, and the newly formed Clonmel Hospital Trolleys group. Deputy McGrath called for people power not only to highlight the inadequacies at the hospital, but to ensure that these are addressed and remedied.
It was acknowledged that South Tipperary General Hospital is not unique and that its problems are mirrored in other hospitals around the country.
Staff at the hospital are at breaking point it was heard, trying to do their jobs in a highly pressurised environment, with some on stress-related leave because they are unable to cope.
Volunteers were sought to step up the campaign to demand and secure better services, funding and more beds for South Tipp General Hospital, and support for its staff.
Chairperson of the Save Our Acute Services committee, Deputy Seamus Healy who was present, confirmed that Fine Gael Minister of State Tom Hayes, has given a commitment that Health Minister James Reilly will meet with a deputation on these issues.
Deputy McGrath said that if this doesn’t happen within the coming weeks, he will not hesitate in leading a protest to Minster Reilly’s stately home, Laughton House in Moneygall.
Deputy McGrath is meeting with STGH hospital manager Maria Barry next week. A possible protest march was also not ruled out in the near future. Support from the floor was strong, as people told their stories.
“I have never been through a more degrading, horrible experience,” said Angela O’Connor, who spent four days on a trolley in the emergency department recently.
“There were 23 of us on trolley beds, you can’t have a shower, you can’t get into your pyjamas, you have to sleep in your clothes,” she said.
“There is one toilet there, and that is for everyone, the people on trolleys, people in the emergency department, the paramedics coming in. You go in and someone is knocking on the door right behind you.”
Angela was still on her trolley when Deputy McGrath visited the hospital to witness the scene for himself.
“This was on the radio the following morning and by that evening the whole place was clear of beds, with management running around the place trying to clean up the situation,” said Ms O’Connor.
She spoke of the treatment a 77-year-old man with pneaumonia received while she was there.
“He was placed on a trolley in the foyer near the lifts. It was absolutely disgraceful the way that man was treated. He was then moved to a bed, but it was the worst bed in the whole place, and I know because I was in it. It was down near where the ambulance comes in, near where the double doors open. When I was there, I had to lie there in my coat with my hood up whenever the ambulance came in, and that is where a man with pneumonia was placed,”
On another occasion Ms O’Connor recalled how an 84-year-old woman was forced to sit in a wheelchair in the corridor for six hours.
“She went for and X-ray and when she returned half an hour later, there was someone in her bed. She had to sit in a wheelchair from 5.30pm until 11.30pm because she couldn’t get a bed.”
The woman asked Ms O’Connor to talk to her because she was afraid she would fall off the wheelchair.
From her experience Ms O’Connor also believed that South Tipperary ambulances are being used as a taxi service. On one occasion she and two others were taken to Kilkenny hospital in an ambulance, while a male patient beside her was taken to Waterford hospital for an eye procedure in one, and another man was taken to Cork for a pacemaker.
“That is three ambulances and six paramedics tied up. What happens when there is an emergency in South Tipperary, who will answer those calls?”
She criticised the unhealthy food that she was served while waiting on her trolley - an unhealthy combination of sausages, chips and potato wedges over three nights. Breakfast consisted of a cup of tea, and two slices of white bread and according to her, when the ward patients have been fed, whatever porridge is left over is brought to them half an hour later.
Maureen O’Brien’s very ill husband was put on a trolley on Friday, before he was due to have an operation in Cork the following Monday. It was left to the family to care for him, to ensure that he was warm and didn’t get an infection.
But Ms O’Brien, who is a former nurse, was unhappy with his treatment. She told the nurse that he needed a bed because he was due for an operation. The bed was provided but its location was far from ideal.
She was appalled when he phoned her in the middle of the night because he was ‘frozen to the bone’, and told her that he would be ‘going out in a box’.
Ms O’Brien and her family lodged a complaint with the complaints officer at the hospital the following day, and she felt at that point she had no choice but to bring him home. He eventually received a ward bed but taking him to a functioning toilet was a challenge - several were out of order, with no water available in others. “You wouldn’t see it in the Third World. I had to get water from another tap and bring it back to the ward in a jug to wash my husband. I put him back into bed but he had no blankets and no pillows, so I had to swipe pillows and blankets from the ward he had come from.
“It was due to our [family’s] hygiene, that my husband was cared for. It is a disgrace, the worst I had ever seen,” she said.
“We were looking after my husband while he was there because the nurses were run off their feet.”
“It is a disgrace, the worst I have ever seen.”
Local Cllr Helena McGee, whose brother Declan was on a trolley for 30 hours recently, after undergoing neurosurgery following a brain haemorrhage, spoke of the frustration and upset that she and her family experienced while there. Confusion over a CT scan left them upset and frightened.
The family understood that Declan was booked to have a CT scan, but almost a day later, were still waiting. Cllr McGee decided to check with the CT department for herself and was amazed to find out that no doctor had requested one. But when she double-checked with the emergency department, she found that he had in fact been booked for a CT, and consultants had been spoken to.
“It was at that stage that I kind of lost it a little because you get frustrated and we were concerned about what this delay would cause for Declan, so I had to pick up the phone and ask Deputy Seamus Healy if he could ring the hospital manager and ask her to ensure that the CT was booked.”
“It is disgraceful that we have to rely on our public representatives, rather than our health service, to look after our loved ones.
Ballymacarbry-based Dr David Janes, who is also the national health spokesperson for Direct Democracy Ireland, and a local election candidate for that group, said he is ‘as sick as everybody else’ about what is happening in hospitals today.
“Witnessing a family saying goodbye to their loved one in a corridor! I never thought, in my 25 years as a doctor, that I would see this.
“I know of families who have had to go down to Clonmel to buy pillows for their family [patients]. Not any of these things should become normal because it isn’t normal, it is not right, it is absolutely wrong.”
“I am treating patients at home who should be in hospital, and it is not safe, but it is safer than sending them to hospital,” he said.
“I am treating people at home for pneumonia, because I don’t want them on a trolley in a corridor with the door open. I have had that happen with elderly people who have gone in with pneaumonia, experienced this, and self-discharge, and say they will never go back again for any reason.”
He said he has patients who are working in the health system but are currently out on stress-related leave because they are unable to deal with the pressure.
Angela Beckers spent three days and two nights on a trolley when she was admitted with double pneumonia. Her experience spurred her to set up Clonmel Hospital Trolleys Facebook group,
“A nurse told me I could take a shower - right beside the shop - I walked in and I walked straight out. The shower was an absolute disgrace. The nurse reported it at reception and they said twice it would be cleaned. I went back the next day and the whole rim along the bottom of the shower was covered in blood. There is no need for dirt. When I eventually got a bed, the ward I was in was spotless, so they can do it.” she said.
One woman whose husband was in the hospital because of gout in his leg, described how a large open wound on his foot was swobbed, cleaned and dressed in the corridor.
“Whoever liked walked in, and walked by, it didn’t make a difference, and I though it was the most unhealthy, unhygienic and dangerous thing to do.
“One night we were leaving at about 8.30pm and there was one man on a trolley with about ten visitors, and they were having a picnic, eating pizza, chips. You could go in there at any hour of the day or night, there could be as many visitors as you like, and you would be in the way of ambulances, nurses, everybody. It didn’t matter,” she said.
One lady whose sister spent more than four months in the stroke unit, said hygiene in the unit was a disgrace.
“There was a patient in the same ward who said she was waiting three days for someone to clean the shower, so she could have a shower.
“Another day a cleaner came up and cleaned excrement off the handle of the bathroom door, with a hygiene wipe, and proceeded to put the hygiene wipe into the bin in the ward.”
This lady complained to the hospital about the lack of hygiene and spoke to a hygiene/maintenance manager.
The public meeting was not attended by Deputy Tom Hayes, or any other Oireachtas members. Richard Dooley, area manager of the HSE responded to his invitation that ‘it would not be appropriate for him to attend, hospital manager Maria Barry was not present and just a handful of South Tipperary councillors attended.