Intensive Care

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:07 am on 22nd January 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice , Lewisham East 10:07 am, 22nd January 1997

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on securing this Adjournment debate and on the way in which he has expressed his feelings about the health service and his constituents. I hope that his comments will be well received by the Minister. My hon. Friend did not engage in tub thumping, but adopted a measured view of what is occurring in the health service. I hope that the Minister will respond in kind.

Hon. Members wish to debate the intensive care beds situation because there is a real crisis in the health service. We do not wish to panic people: this is what our constituents are telling us. It is tragic that we must debate the same subject every winter because the internal market is not working properly. My hon. Friend mentioned the statement made by the Secretary of State on 6 March 1996—almost a year ago—in which, referring to the winter before last, he said: This winter has seen those emergency services put under considerable strain. He added: I have … charged the chief executive of the NHS with a specific responsibility of reporting to me at the end of June and again at the end of September on the plans being made by each health authority for emergency services in its area."—[Official Report, 6 March 1996; Vol. 273, c. 356.] Nevertheless, we hear that in Yorkshire, in London, in the north-west, in the north-east and everywhere else people are experiencing exactly the same problems this winter, if not worse, as they experienced last winter. I hope that the Minister, in his response, will take into account the fact that we believe that what the Secretary of State said on 6 March last year has come to nothing. Indeed, difficulties in our health service seem to be a great deal worse.

I shall mention only two issues. First, I shall talk about my local hospital at Lewisham. Secondly, I shall refer to one of my constituents. I make no apology for raising a constituent's case. I do not believe that individual cases are isolated. Surely they are examples of what is happening throughout the service. I agree with my hon. Friend that many incidents are not commented upon in the media. Indeed, he quoted a doctor to that effect. The cases that we can raise in the House, or which are raised in the media, are only the tip of the iceberg. That is the problem. We are able only by individual cases to draw Ministers' attention to what is happening throughout the service.

Lewisham hospital is a general hospital serving the people of Lewisham, although it is part of the Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark health authority. Early in December 1996, it was necessary to cancel all non-elective, non-urgent surgery cases. It is ironic that the health authority felt that it could not fund any more such cases. Why was that? That situation was reached because Lewisham was doing even better than had been predicted. The hospital was seeing more people, treating them and doing all the things that the Secretary of State constantly tells us is happening.

So successful was Lewisham, however, that it ran out of funding and could no longer proceed. As a result, people who had dates to go into hospital to be treated were told at the beginning of December, "We can no longer admit you because additional funding is not available." Indeed, that funding will not be available until after the end of March this year.

With my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), I have spoken to the health authority and to a Minister. I am not convinced, however, that Ministers are aware of the depth of the crisis. People in Lewisham, particularly, have been waiting for four months and more for admission—over and above the time that they waited to get their date for treatment in the first place. There will be more suffering, people's needs will become greater and costs will increase. As my hon. Friend said, costs will inevitably increase if people are not treated at the time of need.

I shall now move on to the specific case of one of my constituents, Mrs. Queenie Harrild. The case has had a media profile because Mrs. Harrild's family wants to ensure that what happened to her will not happen to anyone else. I pay tribute to the family's courage at a time of bereavement in being able to speak up for others when Mrs. Harrild died. She died because she had to wait five times to have a heart bypass operation. The operation was cancelled on every occasion. I shall go into the case in some detail.

Queenie Harrild was 69. She had been retired for only about four years. Like anyone at that age, she deserved to have a long and fruitful retirement with her husband. She had a bypass operation seven years ago. During the last few months, however, she had been suffering chest pains. She was admitted to Guy's hospital on 13 December.

On 16 December, she was told that she would be transferred to St. Thomas's hospital the next day. She was packed and ready to go. Her husband was at the hospital with her comforting her, giving her support and ready to go with her in the ambulance to St. Thomas's. Late that afternoon, however, she was told that the ambulance had not turned up and that she would be going to St. Thomas's the following day.

On 18 December, Queenie was packed and ready to go again. Again the ambulance did not turn up. This time, she was told that there were no beds available at St. Thomas's and that she was to be discharged, yet the family was told that her name was at the top of the list for the operation at St. Thomas's.

On 21 December, she was told, again, that she was to be transferred to St. Thomas's the following day to be operated on on the Monday. Late on Sunday afternoon, she was told, yet again, that she would not be transferred because no one had told the ward at St. Thomas's that she would be arriving.

On 23 December, Queenie was bathed twice. She went without food in preparation for the operation at Guy's. She was told that she would be sent to St. Thomas's some time that afternoon to be operated upon the following day. Again, later that afternoon, the operation was cancelled.

That process went on until 3 January. In between times, Mrs. Harrild was told that she would be discharged and sent home. She was then told that she would be sent to Lewisham hospital. These instructions went back and forth. She was prepared for an operation on four occasions with a pre-med. She went without food so as to be ready for an operation, only to be told that it had been cancelled. It was cancelled because an intensive care bed was not available. On five occasions there were planned operations. On five occasions her consultant said, "You will have your operation tomorrow."

Mrs. Harrild died on Saturday 4 January, three weeks after she had been accepted into hospital. Of her last 48 hours, 34 were spent without food or drink because she believed that she was to have her operation. At one point she was told that it would be performed privately. It appears that the doctors realised the emergency that they were facing, but that did not happen either.

Mrs. Harrild's family feel—I think that they have some cause to feel—that they lost their mother because the doctors involved had to make a choice between one patient and another, and determine who would be given the spare intensive care bed. It is not the role of doctors to play God, and no doctor wants to do so. It is outrageous that they are forced to make such choices.

The consultant at Guy's who was caring for my constituent said that heart surgery at the trust had been severely affected "for several months". That being so, Mrs. Harrild's case is not an isolated incident at Guy's. There has been a crisis for some time. The consultant said that heart surgery had been severely affected "for several months" because intensive care beds were permanently full. Dr. Bob Knight said: This was a disaster for Mrs Harrild and a terrible tragedy for her family, made worse by the feeling that if things had been dealt with in some other way she would still be here. Dr. Knight is absolutely right. It is a terrible tragedy for Mrs. Harrild's family, but it is one that they could come to terms with if they had any confidence that the Government will ensure that what happened to Mrs. Harrild will not happen to other people. That is why I am participating in the debate today. I want to hear from the Minister that the Secretary of State's speech of 6 March 1996 was not just warm words, but had some significance, that it meant that something will happen about intensive care beds, and that the crisis that we suffered last winter, and are suffering again this winter, will not happen a third time.