I mentioned in a previous posting that I was admitted to an MRSA isolation unit a couple of years ago. I needed intensive intravenous treatment to stamp out an MRSA infection that had spread into the bone of my forehead following surgery for chronic frontal sinus infection. This isolation unit was open-plan with 5 or 6 bays, each containing about 5 beds – each of which was occupied by an MRSA ‘labelled’ patient. In this hospital when someone receives a diagnosis of MRSA, the front of their hospital chart is labelled with an illuminous sticker proclaiming their status – just great for patient morale. This is definitely not a sticker to be proud of! But of course once you make it into an MRSA isolation unit – you’ve truly joined the Club.
I really dreaded being admitted to this unit because I had a fear of what I’d find there. Those fears were not unfounded. I soon realised that most of the other patients were very elderly and some of them had been resident there for a very long time. I began to wonder if I’d ever escape out of the place. The unit was a pre-fabricated structure, which was over-heated and poorly ventilated. It had three toilets but at least one was usually out-of-use because of soiling, or plumbing problems. My abiding memory of the time spent in that unit, is of the smell – think ‘dirty nappies’ and you’ll get my gist – many of the patients were bed-ridden with infected leg ulcers and bed sores. I used to stand at the door to the unit whenever I could to get some fresh air but it would often turn my stomach to have to return to my bed. The blaring televisions left on all day didn’t help either. I longed for escape. The place was mainly staffed by overseas nurses who appeared demoralised by their work conditions. I witnessed some of the nurses treating the older patients with impatience and disrespect. It broke my heart to see the terror and confusion on the faces of the elderly as they struggled to understand instructions given in poor English. We quickly learnt to rely on the few nurses who were ‘gems’ and who lovingly cared for us, often above and beyond the call of duty. Meals were unappetising, non-nutritious and invariably cold, or at least cold by the time they got to us. Evening tea was served at 5pm and then nothing else until breakfast, over 15 hours later, at 8.30 am. We were lucky if we got offered a hot drink during the evening. Whenever I enquired about this I was told that there was a problem of staff shortage in the ward kitchen. Many of the patients in the unit were unable to fend for themselves but we soon learnt to look out for each other’s needs. Why does it have to be like this in this day and age? Why do patients have to endure these sorts of conditions when we have a booming economy in Ireland?
Of course all this talk of improving the Health Service by building co-located private hospitals on public hospital grounds does nothing to reassure me that conditions will improve in the general hospitals. Comprehensive infection control requires funding. Noel Browne succeeded in eradicating TB from Ireland in the 1950’s by isolating the TB patients. The best our Minister for Health can offer is to underline the importance of hand-washing. But, if our Minister for Health was to take the MRSA situation in this country seriously – she could decide to re-locate all MRSA patients into new, purpose built ‘co-located’ hospital units. Now that really would be something worth talking about!