A day in the Emergency Department at CUH: Despite the promises, people are still waiting on trolleys

People on trolleys in corridors at the emergency department of Cork University Hospital.

My dad fell and hurt his hip, not an uncommon occurrence for a frail 82-year-old. He didn't want a fuss, he didn't want to go to the doctor. “It'll be fine,” he insisted, but I wouldn't take no for an answer, writes David Forsythe

So we head to the GP as you are supposed to do and he apologises as he gives us the news that a trip to the Emergency Department will be required, as dad will need an X-ray. It's Monday afternoon, April Fool's Day.

“At least it's not Friday night,” I quip. How bad can it be? The GP replies grimly, “It doesn't matter what day it is.”

It's a short drive from the GP's surgery to Cork University Hospital. I've never driven through Manhattan at rush hour but I imagine the traffic is something similar to this. We crawl along toward the ED entrance, I'll have to drop dad first and find a parking spot later, he can hardly walk even with the aid of his rollator.

We finally get near the entrance and I get him out of the car with a struggle and help him up as far as the doors where he can hopefully get a seat. I don't want to delay the snaking queue of traffic behind us any longer than I have to.

Cork University Hospital, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins
Cork University Hospital, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

But the car park is full.

Nothing is moving, cars are turning around in front, nothing is going in or coming out and the ambulances have a traffic jam of their own.

Dad is clinging to his walking aid for support, I need to get parked fast. So I follow the turning traffic around and head to the carpark at the other side of the building but it's the same story here, nothing in, nothing out. After what seems like forever I park in the shopping centre across the road and run back to the ED I'll have to move the car in two hours or I'll be clamped.

In reception it gets worse. It is packed with people sitting, standing, or using whatever space they can find. Dad is perched precariously on a wooden bench as the man at the desk takes the referral letter and tells us someone will see us soon.

Ambulance crews were subject to long delays overnight waiting for the return of their trolleys as there were no beds available to transfer their patients to at the Emergency Department, Cork University Hospital. Picture Dan Linehan
Ambulance crews were subject to long delays overnight waiting for the return of their trolleys as there were no beds available to transfer their patients to at the Emergency Department, Cork University Hospital. Picture Dan Linehan

We are lucky and dad gets a seat. A woman with a bandaged face leans on the man next to her, children are crying, another man winces in pain as he holds aloft his arm. The triage nurse opens the door and calls out a name and we all look up hoping it's our turn and eventually it is.

On the other side of the door you enter another world. It reminds me of the trenches in World War One or an episode of M*A*S*H where the medics battle to save lives under enemy fire; but this is not ancient history or a TV show, this is real life, Cork, 2019. There are people on trolleys everywhere, every corridor, every available space.

Staff rush back and forward, squeezing past, trying to manoeuvre equipment through the obstacle course.

A group of medics crowd around a white board by the nurse's station, pointing at names on a huge list. They discuss animatedly what they need to do, who to see next, what the priority should be. I've heard of frontline staff before and here they are, the front line, trying to make it work.

The triage nurse could not be nicer, she finds time for a sympathetic word and somehow finds dad a trolley too and we are moved to the corridor near X-ray.

The lady on the trolley behind us has had a stroke, she asks me what time it is, I tell her it's 6:30 pm. She can't believe it. “I've been here since 10 this morning,” she tells me.

After his X-ray dad is wheeled back to the same spot. He needs to go to the toilet, but there's no way he can make it through the throng to the facilities so he'll have to do it here in the corridor.

I stand to protect his privacy the best I can as he uses the cardboard bottle they call a pigeon. There is no room for dignity.

Despite the immense pressure, the nurses check on him regularly, he is diabetic and needs his insulin soon. His blood sugar is checked and it's too high.

Cork University Hospital Aerial View. Picture Tom Coakley.
Cork University Hospital Aerial View. Picture Tom Coakley.

The emergency doctor tells us they will need to admit him and that's when dad decides he has to get home, he can't spend the night here he tells me. He's tired, in pain and confused. He can barely walk but tries all the same while I tell him he needs to stay here for his own good.

The emergency doctor looking after him is rushed off his feet but he talks to him in kindly, reassuring tones. He tells him it's not safe for him to leave, he needs to stay in the hospital, just for one or two days. He convinces him to stay.

The next day my brother arrives from London to take over the watch. Dad is still in the corridor, the consultant suspects a fracture, the nurse tells me they hope to have bed for him soon. As I leave I notice a sign on the door that reads “Status Black – Extreme Congestion”. I turn on the radio and hear the news for the first time in 24 hours, they are talking about us in the Dáil.

A minister says, “We are putting the extra resources and the priority systems in place.

Despite the promises, people are still waiting on trolleys.

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