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Ann Clwyd: my husband died like a battery hen in hospital

Ann Clwyd has said her biggest regret is that she didn’t “stand in the hospital corridor and scream” in protest at the “almost callous lack of care” with which nurses treated her husband as he lay dying in the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

Clwyd, the Labour MP for Cynon Valley since 1984 and Tony Blair’s former human rights envoy to Iraq, told the Guardian she fears a “normalisation of cruelty” is now rife among NHS nurses. She said she had chosen to speak out because this had become “commonplace”.

Describing how her 6’2” husband lay crushed “like a battery hen” against the bars of his hospital bed with an oxygen mask so small it cut into his face and pumped cold air into his infected eye, Clwyd said nurses treated the dying man with “coldness, resentment, indifference and even contempt”.

Owen Roberts died on Tuesday, 23rd October from hospital-acquired pneumonia.

For what it’s worth, my own experiences of watching people die in NHS hospitals have been around as good as it is reasonable to expect such a thing to be. However this is not the first such blast of raw emotion directed against the NHS from a bereaved relative that I have read, merely the first from a Labour MP.

To take another example, Anthony Browne, former health editor of the Observer, and former passionate believer in the NHS, wrote:

Last week’s report into the case of Thomas Rogers, the 74-year-old grandfather who bled to death after lying undiagnosed on a trolley in an accident and emergency ward at Whipps Cross Hospital for nine hours, is shocking. What is even more shocking is that it is hardly unusual. Equally awful stories worm their way out past NHS obstruction every week. And nothing changes.

He was right about nothing changing; the “last week” mentioned in the article was in 2001. I have reposted that article several times over the years. It does not stop being relevant, alas. Again, for what it’s worth, my own experience of Whipps Cross Hospital was quite a lot better than that – I take a forgiving attitude towards the fact that the midwife had to run out into the corridor and yell, “Where’s the fucking obstetrician?”, given that they were trying to deal with multiple women in labour. Things tend to get fraught anywhere when there is a crisis. However the deaths of Mr Roberts and Kane Gorny, who died of thirst due to neglect, or the baby Edward Brown, who was born and died in a hospital toilet while nurses declined to assist because they did not have the training, did not happen as a result of any overwhelming crisis. Whether the problem is that efforts to make nursing more academically prestigious have made some nurses believe it is beneath them to supply the most basic needs of patients, or increased paperwork, or some other factor, NHS nursing care seems to fail more often than it used to. It cannot be because of “cuts”. The last financial year for which there was a reduction in the percentage of central government expenditure devoted to the NHS was 1996/97. And that was one of only seven decreases in all the years since 1950/51. No government has dared blaspheme against the state religion.

35 comments to Raw

  • Monopolies are wicked when they’re private-sector monopolies, but suddenly, magically become virtuous when they’re government-sector monopolies.

    (Never mind that “private-sector” monopolies are in no small part down to government interventions in the market.)

  • It is only a guess, but my guess is that in olden times, even NHS olden times, it used to be possible to fire nurses for being callous brutes, pretty much on the spot, but now it is not possible.

    Either that, or the people who should be firing nurses for being callous brutes are now themselves callous brutes.

    Sad, bad story but good post.

  • Perry Metzger

    In the US, advocates of single payer health care systems (aka government monopoly health care) frequently hold up the NHS as an example to be aspired to. Arguments that the NHS is not what they think it is fall on deaf ears.

  • Alisa

    But, but, but Michael Moore said the NHS is great – he went to Britain himself and saw it with his very own eyes! Of course – and if I am not mistaken – he found the Cuban healthcare to be even better, but it just so happens that there are no Cuban journalists or bloggers (or MPs, for that matter) to tell us otherwise…

  • Steve D

    A politician being mistreated by the very same health system she supports. Didn’t Ayn Rand say something about relying on doctors after you have throttled then…that it is dangerous if they the type to resent it and still more dangerous if they are the type that doesn’t. Oh the irony of it all.

  • RRS

    And it is for this [?] that

    “Governments are instituted among Men”

  • Perry Metzger

    If the experience of the last four thousand years is any guide, governments are principally introduced among men to increase the efficiency with which the unscrupulous may transfer wealth to themselves from the credulous.

  • bloke in spain

    It’s the NHS first got me thinking how the power of the narrative distorts so much of how organisations & ideas are viewed. This one starts; “Staffed by dedicated doctors & caring nurses the British National Health Service is the envy of the world…….” It runs for a couple of paragraphs, was first written the day before its inception & has been repeated so many times it’s probably encoded somewhere down in our DNA by now. It’s not just that the public believe it. Almost everyone connected to the NHS do as well. Doctors, nurses, administrators, politicians. Even most of the media. It makes it impossible for any of them to view it with a clear eye. The incidents quoted above. others much worse we’ve heard about in the last few years. They should be part of the narrative as well but it just rewrites itself over them. Edits them away so the next time comes as exactly the same shock as the one before & the one before that. No-one actually learns any lessons or does anything because the narrative reassures them it’s not necessary. They’re just aberrations. Momentary & inexplicable blips in an otherwise perfect system. Or just signs that even more money needs tipping into it. That the engine that’s coughing & banging & spewing out smoke & broken parts would be running as sweet as a sewing machine with just a little more fuel.

  • Richard Thomas

    Nominating above for SQOTD

  • veryretired

    The simple fact is that government cadres act like government cadres regardless of their position.

    I had a conversation the other day with an acquaintance, and the subject of the looming health care takeover came up. I asked him why he wanted the medical profession to be run like the IRS or the Dept of Motor Vehicles. He was indignant, and claimed that that wouldn’t happen because medicine was a noble calling or some such nonsense.

    The statist mind cannot comprehend that any endeavor might be better in private hands than in the control of the state.

    Even the activists who are vehement in their condemnation of the Pentagon or law enforcement or whatever are equally vehement in their desire for that same government to control every aspect of life that isn’t now under state control, and resist with ferocious indignation any idea that the state should be reduced, except for the part they hate.

    The value of competitive entities that strive with each other to draw customers, or patients, is that they provide choices—if one outfit treats the patient badly, the unhappy client can try another.

    A statist monopoly allows no such choice, and therefore loses the self-correcting rudder that might have steered it toward better service.

    The statist mind, however, cannot accept such an idea, because to do so would require a re-evaluation of its entire ideological framework.

  • James Strong

    Performance of nurses in NHS hospitals varies.
    In the last few months I have seen superb skills, technical and interpersonal, allied to great compassion.

    I have also seen laziness and indifference from nurses and very poor communication from doctors and management that have led to me having full and frank exchanges of views with them.

    Seeing A&E staff dealing with serious and painful conditions, and doing it very well, while also seeing smartly dressed managers in business suits observing while holding clipboards did not make me happy.

    Being told that an 87 year old lady on a ward would have to use a commode rather than walk to a toilet with a Zimmer frame because physiotherapy department wouldn’t be able to assess her for at least another 15 hours did not make me happy.

    It’s a big and difficult problem. In over-simple terms I put it down to the fact that too many people within the NHS think that it is a free service and patients should be grateful for what they get. They need to be reminded that free-at-the-point-of-use does not mean that patients haven’t paid for it, and patients should be treated as paying customers. The best way to do that is privatise it.

  • James Strong

    The other major problem with the NHS is the growing tendency to coerce changes in lifestyles, e.g. smoking, drinking and obesity.

    If person A believes he is paying for the medical care needed by person B because of person B’s lifestyle then he is likely to think that he is entitled to force him to modify that lifestyle.

    Privatise health care and have individual insurance and that problem is solved, and we are all freer.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “efforts to make nursing more academically prestigious have made some nurses believe it is beneath them to supply the most basic needs of patients”

    Too posh to wipe bums, in other words.

    Certainly a factor; whose lunatic idea was it to make nursing and all-“graduate” profession and do away with SEN’s?

    But the basic problem is structural, as all here will agree.

  • PeterT

    My wife had a complication after giving birth to our daughter, six months ago now, which was extremely painful but not life threatening. The person in charge appeared almost indifferent to her pain (or rather, she treated it as run of the mill and just followed her normal procedure) and it was a right palaver to get some morphine for my wife (obviously they have some special protocol) and the nurses tried paracetamol (for god’s sake) even though my wife was screaming her head off.

    It is pretty frustrating as a husband/family member as you know that what you can do to expedite things is pretty limited. Huffing and puffing is unlikely to get you what you want unfortunately.

    What I also found staggering was the amount of time that was spent filling in forms. It seemed to me that this took up about half of the nurses time. Record keeping is all very well, but we all know its more about arse covering.

    While one can come up with excuses for why none of this were NHS specific problems, I just know that this would never happen in the private sector. I do have the benefit of private health insurance and it is very refreshing to be treated like a gentleman and valued customer.

    By the way, I had been encouraged by Nigel Farage’s various noises on things so checked out UKIPs policy platform. Guess what? The NHS is valued by the people of the UK and should remain with some reform. I don’t see how this is different from the Tory position. That, and their obnoxious nativist immigration policy, means that they will not get my vote (and neither will anyone else).

  • John K

    What I also found staggering was the amount of time that was spent filling in forms. It seemed to me that this took up about half of the nurses time. Record keeping is all very well, but we all know its more about arse covering.

    And the odd thing is that if there is a complaint, all these laboriously compiled records have a habit of going missing. Who’d have thought it?

  • llamas

    Andrew Duffin wrote:

    ‘Certainly a factor; whose lunatic idea was it to make nursing and all-“graduate” profession and do away with SEN’s?’

    and the answer is – the nurses themselves decided to do this. For all the reasons why, look back here:




  • stephen ottridge

    Let us try to avoid hospitals and maintain better health. I have recently become a convert of Dr William Davis and his book Wheat Belly. Because of my diagnosis of type 2 diabetes I started searching food and diets to enable a reduction in blood sugar and came across Wheat Belly. It is a devastating expose of modern wheat and its effects on humans. My weight has dropped about 20 lbs in the past 3 months and currently is continuing to drop at a lb a week.

  • nemesis

    I object more to the NHS subsidising life-style choices such as fertility treatment, sex-change ops and little blue pills than I do to life-saving treatment that is a result of life-style choices (and lecturing me in the process.)

  • Richard Thomas

    Seems like bloke in spain was smited when I made the comment about SQOTD and has since become unsmited. I was refering to Perry’s line. Not that I’m pushing for the idea but just to clarify.

  • Edward Spalton

    Just emerged from day surgery for cataract at Derby Royal. Too early to know result but everything was very well and humanely organised – as it was on an earlier visit for sinus surgery. Relatives who have been in for far more serious things are similarly impressed.

    But don’t cross the border into Staffordshire. That was where one hospital managed to shorten over 1200 lives whilst ticking all the boxes to obtain “foundation” status.
    I go to church in Staffordshire and two members of the congregation have had appalling experiences recently.
    One was rather comic. A lady went to visit her husband and asked the nurse in charge where he was. She was pointed to a bed.” That’s not him” she said. ” O YES IT IS” said the nurse,prepared to be really stroppy. “Look,duck. I ‘ve been married fifty years and that’s not him”. Funny, provided they weren’t taking the wrong man’s leg off or something.
    The other case involved the withholding of pain killers to a man in extremis and was just too callous to be believed. So don’t get ill in Staffordshire!

  • Edward Spalton,

    Best wishes for the eye surgery.

    What you say about striking variation across health authorities and hospitals is very much in line with what I have heard. I’ve even heard of astonishing variations within hospitals. Come to think of it, a lot of those accounts, like the experiences you relate, came from fellow churchgoers, who in my experience tend worryingly towards holding devotion to the the NHS as the 40th Article, but with their faith being slightly shaken by poor experiences…

    High levels of variability is what one might expect from a shaky system being operated by people who (being people) vary a great deal. An inspirational leader or a good micro-culture / tacit knowledge base in a particular hospital can have huge effect. I seem to recall that the Soviet Union also threw up the occasional hugely competent star manager or fixer who could navigate the system.

    Of course free market healthcare (in so far as it exists in this hyper-regulated world) is also operated by human beings who vary between inspirational and idiotic, and micro-cultures likewise. But the lower end of the spectrum are continually being forced out of business by competitive pressure, and the successful ones have incentives to spread their way of doing it.

  • Paul Marks

    It is very sad (and very bad) that this lady and her late husband were treated so badly,

  • Past Master of the Obvious

    As I have noted before, in my 60+ years I have yet to see a government that could manage a good bowel movement in the morning much less health care, education, transportation systems, etc., etc., etc. When left in the hands of the private sector things become more available, easier to use and have better results. It happens almost every time. I say almost because there are always exceptions that prove the rule.

  • Sammy

    This is obviously all lies. I saw how wonderful the NHS is at the Olympic opening ceremony.

  • Paul Marks

    Sammy – that was a nice comment.

    Is sums up British “culture”.

  • Stan

    Must be time for another Olympics extravaganza glorifying the NHS….

  • Martin A

    My daughter was born in an NHS hospital in 1972. My wife told me “The NHS is falling apart at the seams”.

    I think it has gone downhill since then.

  • Amos

    Sure, he died like an animal. But it was free.

    That’s so much better than America, where every technique known to man is attempted with every effort to keep you alive; but they make you pay for it.

    More or less. Sometimes not.

    The worst-case scenario of a person’s relationship to a corporation is that the corporation views the person as a profit center. The constant-case scenario of a person’s relationship to the State is that the State views the person as a cost center.

    Anyone familiar with the basics of accounting should know what follows. Profits are maximized, but costs… they get cut.

  • writeby

    “I quit when medicine was placed under State control, some years ago,” said Dr. Hendricks. …

    “Let them discover the kind of doctors that their system will now produce. Let them discover, in their operating rooms and hospital wards, that it is not safe to place their lives in the hands of a man whose life they have throttled. It is not safe, if he is the sort of man who resents it-and still less safe, if he is the sort who doesn’t”

    –Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

    And there’s your answer: National health care attracts the (murderous?) types describe by you.

  • Megalass

    My Dad was an MD in the NHS back in the good old days (early 50’s) and even then the head honchos were knocking off elderly patients to free up bed. Dad fled to America and passed on this lesson: “In a private system, a dead patient is a revenue loss. In the NHS, a dead patient is a cost savings.”

  • askeptic

    Paul Krugman thinks you’re all telling lies about his beloved NHS.

  • bandit

    I know this is cold but wtf did she expect?

  • Under socialized healthcare, the care must be rationed. Since the elderly, the severly ill, and babies require more than their “fair share” of healthcare, that healthcare is rationed such that they die a horrible death while mostly healthy people revel in their “equality.” I’ve written about how they treat infants, including how it is their official policy to let babies die horrific deaths(Link) being denied even food and water, even when parents try to help their children, the state’s “doctors” let them suffer and die(Link).

  • Laird

    Any scarce good (which means every good) has to be allocated somehow. “Rationed”, if you will. In a private enterprise system the method of rationing is through the price mechanism; in a socialist system it is by committee and official diktat. Neither is objectively “fair”; you simply have to decide which form of unfairness you prefer. My preference is price rationing, for a variety of reasons not the least of which that it better aligns incentives and leads to better results in the aggregate (yes, I know that’s a utilitarian argument). It seems that the British people prefer bureaucratic rationing. The results speak for themselves.

  • llamas

    The British have a thing about forming an orderly queue for everything, from busses to the emergency exits. Queue-jumping is considered a social crime, and can lead to serious outbreaks of tut-tutting and general displeasure.

    In the NHS, rationing of resources by time is commonly known as ‘queueing’ – you have to wait until the resource is available – and this is initially on a first-come, first-served basis.

    But, of course, medicine isn’t like that – some people’s needs are always more-urgent than others – and so there are mechanisms for assessment and assigning priorities and moving people ‘up the queue’.

    But this is colloqially referred to as ‘jumping the queue’, one of the most disdained social faux-pas you can commit in the UK. That’s how brainwashed the Brits have become about their healthcare – you’re actually supposed to wait your turn, patiently and without complaint, until the Leviathan can get around to treating you, and you’re supposed to be grateful when it does. And anybody who has the nerve to be so sick that they need treatment out of their turn is labelled as committing a grave social error.

    I think a lot of this sort of thing dates back to WW2 , and the ‘all-in-this-together’, ‘mustn’t grumble’ mindset that was actively propagandized onto the populace at the time. Everything was rationed then, and for years after the war ended, and so it was easy to get the public conditioned to believe that healthacre had to be rationed too – and that it was wrong for anyone to try and get ‘more than their fair share.’ Once the Leviathan becasme used to working in that way, it became self-perpetuating.