“From Ward to Whitehall”
Julie Bailey’s book ‘From Ward toWhitehall’ is going to cause a sensation. In a week when the use by hospitals of theLiverpoolCare Pathway (the so-called ‘end of life treatment’) is being passionately aired in newspapers and radio, the publication of this book could not be more apt. Many who read Julie’s account of the death of her mother, Bella, in an NHS hospital are sure to say, with a mixture of sadness and regret but also with relief that someone is telling this story, “That is my experience, too.” It is also the story of Julie’s campaign to reveal what was happening inStaffordHospitaland her fight for a public inquiry.
I read this book with a special personal interest. I have a mother who worked for many years in just about everyLondonhospital as a medical secretary to senior consultants. I have a sister who is an ophthalmologist who, with a team of volunteer surgeons, has conducted, for free, tens of thousands of sight restoring operations for the poorest people in ruralIndiathrough her charity, Second Sight. I have a husband who became part of the campaign group Cure the NHS which Julie Bailey founded. I worked for years as a freelance trainer in nine different government departments, including the Department of Health where its formerPermanent Secretary, Sir Hugh Taylor, led one of my programmes. So I devoured this book, reading it in a day and bringing to it a whole collection of my own preconceptions about the NHS and the Department of Health, including that, at some levels, the world of Health is full of truly impressive intellectual prowess but short of practical, emotional good sense and where many a mortal seems in awe of the NHS CEO, Sir David Nicholson, the same man who, as Professor Sir Brian Jarman points out in the Foreword to this book, chose to dismiss as “simply lobbying” the experiences and issues first raised by Cure the NHS.
It was not until I sat in on my husband’s evidence to the Robert Francis Public Inquiry into Mid Staffs that I began (only began) to appreciate what Julie and her fellowbereaved campaigners had to go through both personally and as a team. Then I picked up this book and I found myself, in one read, feeling the kind of changing attitudes towards the NHS that these campaigners must have experienced – a deep faith in its care and professionalism tinged first by disbelief and disappointment followed by absolute horror that my pride should be shattered in the wonderful, civilised NHS system of free healthcare for all that we are lucky to have in the UK.
‘From Ward toWhitehall’ is a painful and tragic read, describing what must surely be the most shameful episode in NHS history, but it is also uplifting and hopeful and enlightening and that’s what makes it a sensation.
My emotional journey as a reader was to try and explain away, as evidence of ward staff under inordinate pressure, the ignored call bells, the leaking catheters, the porter so rushed that he crashes his patient’s trolley into some oxygen bottles, the arrival in the wrong ward, even (Heaven help me!) the patients left distressed and smelly in faeces-soiled clothes, slippers and bed linen and given the wrong medication. The NHS means so much to me that I was ready to find the excuses. But what I found myself unable to excuse at any level was the behaviour. Individual behaviour, after all, is our own personal choice. The images described by Julie Bailey are almost too much to bear – the “get back ter yer fuckin bed” behaviour, the doctor clicking two fingers in Julie’s face to illustrate how her mother “will die just like that,” the irresponsibility of the nurses eBay sessions while on duty, patients left on the floor where they have fallen desperately trying to get to the loo to avoid messing their beds, the old woman, bed ridden for three weeks, being frogmarched to the toilet and back and being left to cry, shaken and cowed, under her covers, the image of dehydrated mouths, bleeding and covered in a white film.
What is the use of all that intellectual excellence in the civil service if it does not result in a true sense of emotional responsibility to people it is supposed to serve?
Written in a conversational style and with the kind of detail of one woman’s personal journey that will resonate with the experience of others, this book is an emotional journey and it also serves to highlight how, even for a woman of grit like Julie Bailey, it is terribly hard to stand up for your rights in a bullying institutional culture, where people don’t even need to be told to conceal, deceive and deny because the institutional inclination is so strong. And yet, despite this, the reader can admire those who went out of their way to help and to do the right thing, like the junior doctor who warned Julie “You need to get your mum out of hospital before she comes to any harm.” The reader can feel the optimism Julie and her family felt as the day of discharge approached, and then the despair and horror when her mother was dropped and left without being seen all night while the ward manager insistently stands over the terrifiedBella stating “you slipped didn’t you!”
I find myself thinking “Is this what the 21st Century hospital experience really is?” And then, I question the extra £46 million (Health Service Journal article, Shaun Lintern October 2012) the NHS has just commissioned to be spent on a new “LeadershipAcademy” and I wonder about the appropriateness of this use of tax payers’ money. Is it desperation stakes? Is it a cynical gesture? Is it self-serving plunder? Worst of all, given my attachment to the concept of the NHS, I find myself thinking unthinkable thoughts and wondering whether, with all that intellectual brilliance I experienced in the Department of Health (the strategy arm, after all, of the NHS), this downward spiral of care quality in the NHS is not deliberately designed to make us so fed up with what the NHS offers that we will all willingly accept its transfer to the private sector on the grounds that “anything is better than this, even a privately run NHS.” And then I go on to wonder which big shots will most benefit from that.
I said this book is also hopeful and that is the feeling, above all, that I take away from it. Why? Because this is also the story of an exceptional, natural campaign leader and an exceptional team who found different roles to suit the different levels of skill and confidence in the Cure the NHS group. They expertly organised their personal grit, resilience and determination to deal with the infuriatingly sluggish, self-satisfied, devious, dismissive bureaucratic responses they encountered when they first raised their issues. They found common sense strategies to break through the one thing the Establishment knows how to do very well indeed – close ranks.
It’s a story of undying hope and of determined, organised, sustained application. It’s a story of a team working at the highest level of performance, not as the result of training but because each and every one of themnever,never took their eye off the prize of truth and justice at the end of the road and, when the going was tough, even abusive and almost unbearable, they always found ways to support those whose suffering became too much.
For other campaigning groups, here is a potential model.
Yes, it’s a story of hope.