I walk into A & E. The waiting room is dark and intimidating. There are several loud, drunk men and I am frightened. Sophie goes to talk to the receptionist because I am too far away to find the words. She barks at her to speak up, and I am dimly aware of the room falling silent when Sophie says that I'm suicidal and not safe at home. Sophie asks if there is somewhere quiet where I can wait, and she is told that I can stay in the waiting room "like everyone else". We sit, and wait for over an hour.
This time I am going alone to a department that I've never been to before. I've been putting it off, because of all the times before, but the pain is too much. The receptionist asks lots of questions, and won't bring me a chair while we talk even though I ask her, I can't lift one myself. Again, my name, address, DOB and telephone number have to be shouted through a screen in a room full of strangers. I sit and wait for 15 minutes.
The triage nurse calls me through and tells Sophie she must wait outside. I freeze. I can't talk, I need my friend to be my voice. Sophie insists, and is eventually allowed in. I'm pretty sure the nurse assumes we've both been drinking. We haven't.
The triage nurse calls me in and smiles at me. When I tell her my diagnosis she writes it down and asks me to explain it to her. She tells me what will happen next. I am called up twice more - for ECG and chest Xray. Getting up and down is painful as is undressing. Both technicians are lovely, and help me to change into the best designed hospital gown I've seen. I return to the waiting room and wait another hour.
The triage nurse is aggressive, and brisk. I am under the "care" of crisis team, I should have called them. Sophie explains that after 2 hours of trying to get through, their advice was to do some washing up. Still, it is not her problem to deal with - "we're not going to admit you, we're not going to give you anything, you could wait to see the medic on call, but they're busy treating people who are actually sick". Apparently if I was really suicidal I wouldn't be seeking help. I can't find the words to tell her that depression this deep feels like and end-stage illness. Death hangs over my head, and I have no control. I'm frightened.
The doctor calls me in and takes a brief history. He knows about my condition, and agrees with my interpretation of the symptoms. He listens to my lungs, and tells me the rib is dislocating with every breath.
Before I know it, the nurse has pulled me to my feet, propelled me back to the waiting room and told me that "if I choose to stay" I'm in for a long night. I want to leave, and when Sophie doesn't try to stop me, I know it must have been as bad as it seemed. I feel small and helpless, and incredibly guilty for "wasting time" and upsetting Sophie. She stays at mine. My friends don't leave me alone for the next 2 weeks as service after service failed me. I am lucky to have friends like these - 20 year olds doing what the grown-ups can't seem to manage.
I get shown my Xray, and talked through the findings. They check my pain meds and I am given lidocaine patches, and told to come back if they don't work.
I have been on both sides of A and E. I know that people get frustrated, and I know it is difficult to feel helpless because you can't "fix" people. I also know that people feel frustrated by the thought of wasting time spent helping "sick people" on people who have "done something to themselves". If only life was that simple.
The difference was in the small things - being smiled at, being believed, receiving treatment. Not being told that as a medical student I should know better than to break a rib...
And if you think that feeling suicidal doesn't count as an accident or emergency, you might want the NHS online symptom checker to change their advice. Because according to them I should have phoned 999. Think how well that would have gone down.
Please also look at my friend Ali's blog here at her posts about A and E, especially this one called 'Getting it Right'
You are welcome to leave your comments, no matter your opinion. I would ask that you bear in mind both that this post leaves me feeling pretty vulnerable, and that I have other readers who have also had similar experiences.