DROPS IN THE OCEAN : Thoughts from a patient at the Royal Sussex County Hospital

 DROPS IN THE OCEAN : Thoughts from a patient at the Royal Sussex County Hospital

“The heart is an organ of fire.” Remember that unforgettable sentence from The English Patient's famous journal? He was writing romantically about his tragic love-affair with the doomed Katherine: I experienced a “hot and angry” heart in a different context.


Chapter one. Sunday, June 2018

Just after midnight on a Sunday in June 2018, I “enjoyed”  –  if that's the right word  –  my first heart attack. I didn't know that's what it was at the time: just that I had this enormous crushing weight on, and in, my chest. When it finally dawned on me that it wasn't going away, I dialled 999 and the ambulance crew turned up very quickly. Although my body was virtually immobile, my brain was working fine, which meant that I could unlock the front door for the medics and grab together what I thought of as some essentials  –  wallet, keys, phone, etc thrown into a backpack  –  before they arrived. Once into a wheelchair and out the door, I asked them to lock up, which they kindly did, and off we galloped to A&E at The Royal Sussex. I don't remember much after that, other than the sensations of being emergency-operated on under local anaesthetic, and of being so cold that I kept asking for more and more blankets.

At 6.30 am I emerged from a stupor to find myself in the Millennium Wing's Coronary Care Unit (CCU), enveloped in the sort of compassionate TLC from all the staff you can only dream about; perhaps something to do with having had a near-death experience. I was hooked up to a bedside monitor and forbidden to leave my bed for at least 12 hours. After that, they let me sit in a chair until I was given a rover (a portable monitor) so I could make the marathon journey to the loo, all of five yards away.

The staff do tough twelve-hour shifts, eight till eight. Our night-crew boss was Hannah; Sara headed the day-team. All were dedicated workers from every country you could think of, from Albania to Zimbabwe. Christopher, the very personable caterer, came round with the menu, but I had no appetite and just settled for yoghurt at mealtimes. You become institutionalised very quickly, and spend most of your time  –  when not chatting to staff or other patients  –  looking forward to the the next rattling food trolley: whenever it arrived, a big cheer would go up, even if, like me, you ate very little.

A most civilised event took place daily after lunch at 1 pm  –  lights dimmed for two hours' rest; patients were expected to avoid doing anything that would prevent the rest of us having a kip. Not that it's easy to sleep in hospital, what with noise, tablets, blood extractions, checking vital signs, and all the rest, but the interlude was very welcome. At 3 pm it was over, in time for the visitors' invasion...

First through the door was always Kathy from Seaford. Her husband Matthew, in the far corner, wasn't in good shape. They'd fix him up, send him home, something serious would go twang, and back he'd come.

CCU was a mixed 6-bed ward, meaning both male and female patients in the room: the staff have supposedly strict guidelines to follow in this situation, but as most of the rules were ignored or flouted, this led to one or two interesting incidents. For instance. When I first arrived, the orderly offered me a a choice of gown or pyjamas: I chose pyjamas, but she said, “You'll find a gown more comfortable”, so gown it was. Later, although it was taboo, the porters put a woman opposite me. She complained, said the orderly, that I was exposing myself. To which I replied, “if you had given me the pyjamas I first asked for, it wouldn't have happened”. Pyjamas promptly appeared; goodbye gown.


Chapter two. Monday, June 2018

After a comparatively lazy Sunday, Monday morning brought the weekday routine and all that this entailed. Our beds were numbered 1.1 to 1.6. Staff would always use that time-saving short-hand among themselves rather than patients' names.

My first VIP was re-hab nurse Harriet, aka my fairy godmother. She explained: a) that every CCU patient had someone like her; b) what I'd been through i.e. a stent-insertion to clear one of my blocked arteries; c) what would happen next; and d) how she would personally monitor my recovery from now until forever. In my battered condition, it was an immense morale-booster to know Harriet would always be in the background; she – and her team – have helped me many times since, and are still doing so.

She was followed by the usual weekday convoy of docs doing patients' rounds, me being the last visit. Surgeons, nurses and students gathered at the end of the bed: my saviour Simon, the guy who had actually done my emergency surgery in the wee hours of Sunday morning, was there. He kicked off his report to the others with “This is a 78 year old gentleman” at which point I interrupted with “I was only 74 when I came in. Have I been here that long?” Once they had finished pretending to laugh at my feeble joke, his medical jargon continued. Even I could tell I was going to need more than just his Sunday morning life-saving. It was at this point that the enormity of the whole thing hit me, and – in front of them all – the tears started. Happily, they didn't last long, especially after Sophie, everyone's favourite nurse and an amazing empathiser, gave my shoulder a reassuring rub. When it came to my turn for questions, I asked Simon, “Why didn't you do the other treatments at the same time as the first?” It was then that he said, “Your heart is hot and angry right now. Let's have it settle down for a while, then we can see what's what.”

Off they went, leaving me thinking that, compared to some of the others in the ward, I was in pretty good nick, considering; and, with Harriet in my corner, I was probably going to be OK. In fact they told me that, all being well, I would be going home the next day, Tuesday.

And so, we settled down to life on the ward. Some had come from other towns like Crawley and Horsham, and we all got on reasonably well, especially when one otherwise lovely man, whose ear-shattering snoring kept us awake at night, was moved elsewhere. The patient in the bed next door – 80 year-old Jean – and I got matey: I'd borrow her phone, she my specs, and so on. Happily, we've stayed in close touch ever since.

You were encouraged to be mobile; that meant being hooked up to a rover rather than to your bedside monitor. Like everything else in the NHS, rovers were in short supply. In theory CCU had four, but two were broken, so six of us were sharing two. I seemed to be the only inmate who wanted to stroll, so I had one most of the time. I got a ticking-off for wandering out of CCU: nobody had told me the rover didn't work outside, and I was enjoying the freedom of visiting general reception when I was yanked back to safety.


Chapter three. Tuesday, June 2018

I may not be leaving today after all; arrhythmia giving cause for concern, so it's time for a change of meds. If they do the trick, I will leave at 12 noon with the other dischargees. The discharge process is a convoluted, drawn-out game of snakes and ladders: the staff want you out as much as you want to go, but they won't even let you get dressed until all the hurdles are jumped. The first is when your docs formally put you under starter's orders: happily, by the time they turn up, the new meds have sorted my little problem.

An echocardiogram is next. This is a 3d picture of your heart in action, taken by (surprise, surprise) an echocardiographer. Ours is due at 10 am, but only the machine arrives. It sits there until 12 noon, when the guy finally turns up, two hours late, and he's not in a good mood. In fact, when he gets round to doing me, there's an instant personality clash.

Anyway, back at the ward, it's lunchtime; my appetite has returned, so I tuck into one of Christopher's mac-cheeses – yummy! – and await the pharmacist, he who must decide the meds I take home. Unfortunately, in spite of my pleadings, he doesn't arrive till 4.30! Meantime, I've been researching transport: it seems I am too healthy and too well-off (what a laugh!) to qualify for a hospital car, so it'll have to be a taxi. But this can only be called when the discharge nurse signs me off at 5 pm and says the magic words “Go Home!” But, since it's now dinner-time, I tuck into a final meal from Christopher.

The taxi is called. I grab my backpack full of dirty laundry and wait at the main entrance. The car comes quickly. As I exit the building, the last person I see – the only other person in reception, Seaford Kathy – sits sobbing in solitude, her tears just drops in the ocean at the House of Heartbreak.



I tell the driver my cash-and-card-filled wallet is indoors, and that I will pay him on arrival. At home, he happily waits for me in the car while I go get it. My flat feels very strange returning after recent events but, more importantly, no wallet! Where the hell is it? Never mind, he'll take a cheque, I'm sure. I go down with the cheque-book: “No sorry, don't take cheques”. He's now looking at me less happily; inspiration strikes: “I'll get it from a neighbour!” I hit the jackpot at the second door, borrow the £15 cash and give it, with apologies, to a very relieved cabbie.

Back inside, priority number one is Hunt The Wallet ! Finally it turns up. Where? At the bottom of the very backpack I had had with me all the time, and which had been lying for three days beside my hospital bed. Lucky for me no-one light-fingered had been around during my stay.                

That was the first of my visits to CCU and other cardiac wards in the Royal Sussex. Let's save future adventures for another day, but I'm not ashamed to say I fell in love with every department. “In love with a hospital? You're mad!” I say to myself. But then I think, “It's not the bricks and mortar: it's all those people; Hannah, Sara, Maksim, Dong, Nui, Agata, Vlad – the roll-call of heroes in the front-line of the warzone that is today’s overstretched NHS is endless – working their socks off twelve hours a day to keep me alive long enough to enjoy another few years. How could I not love them?”

So, to paraphrase Dee Brown, when the time finally comes, please bury my heart at CCU.


This piece was written by Peter, a Friends member. The names and home locations of patients have been anonymised.

About the author

Suzy and Sarah are the Administrative Team for the Friends charity.

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Many thanks for your ongoing generous support for helping us improve the airway equipment in the hospital

Dr Kate Regan, Consultant in Critical Care and Anaesthesia, BSUH

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