Over the past month or so my family have been at the mercy of the NHS, and I have to say that it’s been an exasperating rollercoaster.

Up until late January this year my 91 year old father had been living a stupidly independent life for one so old in our family home. In fact just a week earlier than the ride began I’d finally won the argument that he should get some domestic help in a couple of times a week. Just 2 visits in and my dad had fallen and needed an ambulance to a) get up and b) get taken to our local hospital for a check up.

Turned out he was lucky as he hadn’t broken anything in the fall, but whilst doing some obs they’d discovered that he had a blocked heart, and in what I thought was a surprising move for somebody of his age, they decided to fit him with a pacemaker. So once again another huzzah for the NHS, first their swift action when he’d fallen, then giving him a really good MOT seeing as he was in and finally finding something wrong and sorting it out within a matter of days.

That’s when it all went a bit wrong though. It was clear that my dad might now need a fuller package of care to help him when he got home as both my brother and I aren’t exactly local – so to all intents and purposes within a week of the fall dad became a bed blocker. However within that week covid hit the ward and dad had no choice but to stay within the quarantine of the ward. Visiting was stopped and to be honest we waited with baited breath concerned that he was now stuck in a confined space with the dreaded virus. I’d call every day to see if he was in the clear, and miraculously every day I was told that he remained negative. Except about 6 days in, when during my daily phone call the nurse casually dropped into the conversation that not only had dad tested positive for covid, but he’d tested positive a day or two earlier and nobody had told me.

For the next few days I’d ring a couple of times a day just to check on him – 9 times out of 10 they’d tell me that he was OK, but then one day, just like with the positive covid result they threw in that dad was occasionally needing oxygen. Once again I noted my concern that things weren’t being handed over efficiently even though we were not allowed into the ward to see him.

Fast forward a few more days and I’d been surprised when a relative had been denied entry to the ward as the quarantine period was over – so back on the phone I go, only to be told that once again the ward was locked down – this time. . . norovirus. Remarkably dad managed to dodge it, and we started to discuss at length that he’d need to go to a neighbouring hospital in order to do some rehab, as he’d been bedbound for several weeks.

My dad took some persuasion about the rehab hospital as he just wanted to go home, but eventually he could see the logic of the decision. Then suddenly we were informed that he was to be discharged within 12 hours. . . and sent home!! With no available bed in rehab they were sending him home with a package of care – except that nobody had assessed his house, nobody could get home in time to meet him, so we were left in the capable hands of the carers who informed me that they were to call on him twice a day.

As if by magic he was home, the carer settled him into the house then left. . . failing to notice that the one telephone that my dad could hear & use wasn’t plugged in. After calling him several times I eventually contacted a relative who could call around to see if my phone hypothesis was right, as by this time I was getting worried. Panic over – the phone was plugged in, I had a quick chat with him and all felt strangely calm.

On the next day I was woken by several text messages from family members unable to make contact with my dad again. This time I asked a neighbour to nip in to check (still thinking that it might have been the phone) only for the neighbour to inform me that they couldn’t get into the house. What’s more they’d looked through the windows and there was no sign of my dad anywhere.

So at 1pm on Saturday 11th March I was calling 999 again to ask them to break in and check on my dad. As I was calling the London switchboard they were unable to give me an ETA, they just reassured me that the message had been passed on – a suspected collapse of a 91 year old after being discharged from the hospital the day before. A cousin offered to go down to meet the emergency services, but while waiting he too tried the door. He managed to get in and found my father collapsed upstairs on the floor, unable to get up.

I was back on the phone to 999 giving an update. This time they transferred me to the Swansea switchboard where I was told that there’d be a 4 – 8 hour delay. In truth I felt as sorry for the operator as I did my dad – they got my disbelief, my insistence, my desperation and my exasperation and appeared to truly empathise, but there was nothing that they could do.

On relying the news to my cousin who was still with my dad – he was (thankfully) adamant that my dad could not just be lying on the floor for 8 hours waiting for an ambulance. So between him and our friendly vicar who I’d called looking for another ‘able bodied’ person to help, some 3 hours after falling he was put safely back into bed to await the ambulance.

At 6:30pm a St John’s ambulance arrived. The 2 volunteers were great with dad, checked him over, but after speaking to the paramedics left informing me that the ambulance was still on its way.

At 4:30pm on 12th March the paramedics arrived and took dad into hospital for more tests. The hospital is literally 5 mins up the road from our house so by 5pm I started to call to see what was going on. I was told that dad was not in the hospital but was now stuck in the ambulance waiting for a bed to become available. I kept calling for updates but nobody was answering the switchboard, or when they did ED couldn’t help as dad was still in the ambulance. In fact Dad didn’t actually enter the hospital until the next day. . . .20 hours later. 20 hours of my dad going off the radar as nobody could tell me what was going on. When did hospitals stop answering the phones??

Anyway not to worry all was good – he’d past all the tests but they agreed with me when I pointed out that he clearly needed a bigger care package, at least initially. So it was back to the original plan and he was going back to rehab. The relief was palpable. However just a few hours later when I did my nightly call they had no trace of my father. Turns out that transfer had gone through quickly and he’d moved hospitals but nobody had told his family.

I eventually tracked him down at the rehab hospital and had a chat with him – little wonder that he was all over the place given the last few days, but one long chat later things were very much back on track. I arranged for some things to arrive that afternoon and planned to get down the next day to see him settled in.

On the way down I got a phone call – dad had deteriorated and he was on his way BACK to the first hospital. The M4 had never felt so long. Memories came flooding back of doing the same drive when my mum had been taken ill . . .so I felt like I knew the script. I again kept calling the hospital to once again be told that he was stuck in an ambulance. This time though it was just a 4 hour wait!

This time I was at the hospital within a few hours to see him – which was lucky really as nobody was answering the phone again. When I did eventually get through at one point a nurse informed me that my father was now on antibiotics, and when I asked why she informed me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t know. When I asked to speak to someone that would know she told me that the only person to help me would be one of the doctors but she wasn’t going to waste their time asking them to call me.

She was clearly frazzled, so I’m not having a go at her, indeed when I called back later she was incredibly kind, noted that she’d been wrong earlier as he wasn’t being treated for anything (change of plan) and we had a nice little natter about the decline of the NHS. The decline of the NHS is right though as by the time I was back at the hospital the next day, dad was now back on antibiotics and awaiting a transfer BACK to the rehab hospital. Of course by this point he’d lost his bed, so he was back in the queue for a package of care.

I had to return to London today so relied on updates via telephone – 6 hours of constant calling in order to speak to someone just to check how my father was doing. I could have wept.

As a family we understand that hospitals are stupidly busy, in fact quite a few of the family are themselves medics, so we really understand the difficulties. What I don’t understand though is failing to answer phones and give families reliable updates. I understand the need to quarantine a ward when a virus hits, but then surely it’s even more important to give families reliable information. I understand that beds are like gold dust, but why discharge a vulnerable patient over a weekend without a robust package of care in place – surely they can see that they’re just creating bigger problems for themselves. Over the course of this week my father has spent a full day in an ambulance – I’m sorry but I will never understand how the NHS became that desperate. As a family we understood that lots of family members calling is high maintenance, so we have one person calling every day. . . me! Yet it can’t be right that my entire day is taken up calling the switchboard just to get an update.

Dad’s now waiting to back to the rehab hospital, yet when I asked the nurse today if they’d be informing us when he was moving, the nurse answered honestly. . . they didn’t know. They knew that they SHOULD inform us, but confessed that very often those details sometimes run away from them as their priority was the patients. . . not the family.

Do you know what really upsets me though – my dad is not the unlucky exception to the rule. . . .from what I’ve been hearing, his treatment and indeed the communication between us and the hospital (or lack of) is now just the norm. What about the poor sods that have no family to advocate for them, what about the families that aren’t confident or able to just keep ringing those numbers to try and get an update?

We talk about fighting for the NHS, but honestly, after the last few weeks, I’m beginning to think that it’s already too far gone to be saved.