Sunday, 5 February 2017

Open Wide: A Trip To Peterborough City Hospital

Peterborough City Hospital

Keen followers of my blog will know that I've had a tricky abscess in my mouth since mid-December that has proved difficult to treat. Both my dentist and my GP have given me excellent care during this time. However, three courses of antibiotics have had little effect so my GP decided it was time to refer me to a specialist 'maxillofacial' team at Peterborough City Hospital to find out exactly what is going on.

This was my first trip as an outpatient to the 'new' hospital in Bretton, which opened in 2010. I have a couple of chronic conditions, multiple sclerosis being the most significant of these, and have had other reasons to be treated in hospitals over the years, including treatment of changing cells at neck of my womb in the 1990s (I will forever be grateful for the life-saving NHS Cervical Cancer Screening Programme). However, familiarity with the hospital environment doesn't make visiting a specialist for the first time any less daunting.

Can we talk about parking?

Veteran outpatients know to aim to arrive at least an hour before the appointment because parking at hospitals is traumatic.

In this respect, PCH is no different to any other hospital that I have visited. The whole 'parking at hospital' scenario needs a rethink. The air outside most hospitals must be so polluted! It would be great to have sufficient parking away from the hospital itself with a convenient, accessible and reliable means of transporting patients from their car to the hospital. Something like the transportation that takes you from one airport terminal to another. Better still would be safe, accessible transport as an alternative to the car. I find it absolutely crazy that to get into the hospital building I had to walk through metres of car exhaust fumes and other vehicular pollutants. It's a shame that more thought didn't go into this when the new hospital was being planned.

Road outside Peterborough City Hospital
I wonder if anyone has checked the air quality outside PCH

Orientation (finding where I needed to be)

Being a veteran outpatient I arrived on time. The hospital building is vast and the lobby is taken up with shops, restaurants, cash points and car park ticket machines. And queues at all of these. Fortunately, right in the middle at the front of the lobby is a reception desk. I showed the receptionist my letter and she very clearly explained how to get to where I needed to go. It was a short walk to the lift and an even shorter journey to the first floor. When the doors opened I was exactly where I needed to be: at the entrance to the Head and Neck Unit (also known as maxillofacial, but a lot easier to pronounce). After queuing for just a couple of minutes I was able to show the receptionist my letter and she directed me to the xray department around the corner.

Having attended many outpatient appointments over the years I have learned that only a fool turns up without a good book. It is the norm that the time you are given has also been given to everyone else the specialist is seeing that afternoon. So it was to my great surprise that before I'd even taken my book out of my bag I had been called for my xray.

Woman having a dental xray
This isn't me but the xray machine was similar to this one.

The gentleman who took my xray was very kind and helpful. He must know that patients like me are quite anxious because we don't know what's making us ill and he took care to keep the conversation light and positive. I've been unwell with this problem in my mouth for six weeks, so I've had plenty of time to allow the anxiety to grow. Every member of staff I'd met to this point had been very friendly and that helped me a lot. I know that when it comes to seeing the specialist the calmer you are, the more likely you are to properly take in what the doctor is saying to you, so these little acts of compassion along the way help patients like me a great deal.

Another very short wait

I returned to the waiting area and was about to start reading my book when a nurse appeared and called my name. I was taken a short distance to a consulting room where I met the doctor who would be dealing with my case. I was invited to sit down. Both the nurse and the doctor were friendly and attentive and spent as much time listening to me explain what was going on as they did speaking to me.

This is not how things used to be.

Twenty years ago when my MS was a new thing the experience of being seen in hospital was traumatic. The professionals who treated me back then were rarely interested in how I was feeling or what I was thinking, one telling me that he wasn't interested in my depression as he 'only deals with things from the neck down'.

Today, the consultant looked at my xray and then invited me to take a seat in the dentist chair so he could have a look at the abscess. He was able to identify what was going on immediately and before I had time to worry about anything I was back in the seat by his desk. He then explained exactly what was going on and exactly what could be done about it and by whom and what would happen and when. He then allowed me to ask all the questions I wanted to and provided reassuring advice and an explanation about what would happen next.

I left the room feeling empowered with information that I will now use to put this inconvenient little ailment right. All I have to do now is await his letter which, he told me, will with be with me in about a week.

Dentist chair
I was examined in a chair like this one, just as you would expect.

If you're aged under 30, maybe this sounds like a pretty standard hospital visit to you. But if you're older, then you may recall that visits to outpatient clinics never used to be as pleasant or as smooth as this. Over the years, our precious NHS services have transformed from providing essential care for patients' bodies to providing excellent care to patients as people. When I am treated with dignity and kindness at every stage of my visit to an outpatients clinic my chances of having a relaxed consultation where I hear and understand what the doctor is telling me and where the doctor hears and understands what I am saying is greatly increased. When we both understand one another the chances that I'll receive the best treatment in the most timely fashion are also increased.

I'll be back...

My first experience of PCH has left me with the impression that this hospital and its staff are committed to getting it right for patients. I've been a patient advocate for many years and what I experienced during this visit is the result of NHS professionals spending decades listening to patient voices. I haven't been to PCH enough times to know if this is normal for this hospital but I've been to enough hospitals to know this is not the norm for every patient in every hospital yet. For me, PCH is getting it right and I extend my heartfelt thanks to the hospital staff I encountered on that day and all those who work behind the scenes to improve the patient experience.

The treatment I received that day was first class. However, I am fully aware of the great struggle that the men and women who work our city hospital experience every day due to chronic underfunding. As well as being providers of world class levels of care, they carry on their shoulders a huge burden that they should never have been asked to endure: the worry that without sufficient funding they will not be able to provide the level of care they are trained to provide and that they want to provide to all patients regardless of circumstances and ability to pay. I wouldn't blame those who looked after me this week if they took me aside for a bit of a moan about how the NHS is struggling. But none did. Not because the struggle isn't happening, but because these amazing people put patients' wellbeing first.

Green Party banner that reads keep the NHS public

Save our NHS. Keep it public. 

Our high quality, free-at-point-of-delivery NHS is not a given and it is under unprecedented threat due to under-funding. The people treating me will make me better. I have no doubt at all about that. But how many of us who rely on the services PCH provides are doing all we can to look after the people who treat us and the services they provide?

If you or a family member hasn't been treated in hospital for a while, there's currently a fantastic documentary series on BBC2 that I highly recommend. It is called 'Hospital' and is broadcast at 9pm on Wednesdays. The programme sheds light on the horrendous decisions hospital staff are forced to make every day when faced with a lack of resources to meet the needs of patients. If you've ever felt frustrated by a long wait in A&E or have suffered the stress and disappointment of a cancelled operation, and especially if you haven't and don't know why people like me keep banging on about the NHS, do watch this programme.

Huge thanks to PCH for your care. Peterborough is lucky to have you and if you're ever in need of my help, please say so.

Green Party banner that reads end the privatisation. Keep our NHS public.

UPDATE: 28 July 2017: Well, this little episode rolled on for FIVE MONTHS. Eight medical appointments, eight x-rays, four rounds of antibiotics, one tooth extraction and one denture-fitting later and we finally know what the problem was. As well as having MS I have another autoimmune condition known as Sjogrens Syndrome (the tennis player Venus Williams has this too). This means I have dry eyes and a dry mouth. A dry mouth means teeth are susceptible to decay and damage. At some unknown point in the last couple of years I have bitten down and fractured the root of one of my incisors (they're the teeth at the front of your mouth, up above). In December, I had tonsillitis, and it would appear that at this time infection got into the fractured tooth and set to work destroying the bone that was holding my teeth in place. The eventual treatment we opted for was removal of the fractured tooth (goodbye and good riddance). I now have a denture in its place (you would never know). Thank you again to all the medical professionals who treated me during this time. You were fantastic.


  1. I have been to the PCH a number of times, usually visiting a friend, and I can assure you that this is normal behaviour by the hard-working staff there. We need to fight to get back the funding this Government has stolen from the NHS to give their rich buddies tax-breaks!