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COLM MEANY: Alice in HSE-land

“We’ve fallen down some kind of rabbit hole into a hellish nonsensical Wonderland where the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Queen of Hearts are making the rules” – Julius Ruechel.

From the outset I wish to acknowledge the excellent treatment which my father received in hospital, both in 2019 and now in 2021. My father is 95 and the response of the staff, both the paramedics who responded to bring him to the hospital in the ambulance, and the nurses, doctors and orderlies in the hospital, has been extraordinary.

At the start, Dad was in the HDU (High Dependency Unit) and he was taken there on Sunday midday. I went out that evening but was told that they were exceptionally busy, and was advised to return the next morning; which I did, and all went according to plan. After a wait of 5 minutes, I was told to pass through a security gate and proceed. I found no security, but a most genial, relaxed orderly, who duly fitted me out in my PPE. I chatted with my father, who had made a remarkable recovery, thanks to the hospital staff.

Next day he was transferred to another ward; here the HSE’s bizarre fun and games began. I had earlier gone to the main reception of the hospital and enquired about my dad. I was told that he was in another ward, but that an appointment was required; I was duly given the telephone number and the name of the lady in charge of visitors to that ward. Arriving home that evening, I called the number and was finally connected to a nurse. I said that I wished to make an appointment to see my father in that ward. She asked: “what time would you like?” Somewhat taken aback, I said “10am”. She said that that was OK, and I enquired: “is that the entire procedure?”, as it seemed pretty laid-back to me, especially if there was some absolutely deadly virus on the rampage. She said all was well, and so that night I slept soundly.

Next day I went to the hospital and eventually made my way to the ward. I was peering in the window (access was only from the inside) when a doctor pushed the button and let me in. I wandered about, saw my dad’s name at the nurses’ station (which was vacant at that time), and was looking for his room when I met a few orderlies. They were a bit bemused to see me inside, but calmly prepared me for my formal visit: gown, mask, gloves, sign the visitor’s book. They asked if I had met the in-charge of the ward, and I said I hadn’t. She arrived forthwith. A pleasant young lady, she asked why I was there. I said that I had an appointment to visit my elderly father. She said that I had no appointment. Fortunately, I kept my cool; obviously my telephone call of the previous night had not been recorded at all. Still, our chat was entirely civil, and when she informed me that the ward was actually an “isolation” ward, then I decided that it was time for me to go home. I asked her to bring my bag to my dad (extra pyjamas, mobile phone), which she duly did. Then, lo and behold, she said “OK, I’ll give you 5 minutes”. Well, this was astonishing. I mean, a ward is either isolation or it isn’t! What difference would five minutes make? Would 4 or 6 minutes have a more traumatic impact? Could 4 or 6 minutes signal the entrance of the deadly pathogen, but not 5? Maybe I should accept her “5 minutes” as a benign offering, an expression of her having pity on me. At any rate, now I was set for my 5-minute visit, which was good news; then I met my Waterloo. Because she then said “I presume you’re vaccinated”, and I said “No”. Cue for drastic change of mood. Now she said “I couldn’t possibly let you enter the ward, for your own safety”. End of story, end of visit.

Yet if this sounds weird, things only get weirder! I went home and told my 93-year-old mother that there were no visits allowed at the isolation ward. Still, my brother drove her to the hospital as she wanted to bring extra clothing for my dad. The plan was to leave them at the security desk and they would deliver them to the ward. However, having left the clothing at the desk, Mother proceeded to make her way to the isolation ward, various hospital staff being most helpful in directing and accompanying her. The woman in charge of the visitors met her and said “I told your son that there were no visits, as this is an isolation ward”. Mother replied that I had dutifully relayed that message. So the lady asked what my mother was doing, and she replied “I just thought I’d chance my luck!” And now she was given the magic 5-minute visit, which lasted for 30 minutes. Lewis Carroll couldn’t make this up.

Improving day by day, Dad was next transferred to a recovery ward, but whether appointments were necessary for a visit remains somewhat an opaque matter as it seems that the rules change by the hour. At any rate, my sister and mother did have an appointment one afternoon, but there was a mix-up among the security, and they had to wait 30 minutes in the hospital foyer. Tempers were a little frayed, but eventually they visited Dad. I went out later that evening to visit him and successfully made my way to the ward. However, a nurse happened to meet me and asked if I would sign in at the desk. Having neglected to make an appointment, the nurse was somewhat nonplussed as she looked for my name in the booking sheet. I thought fast and said “if my appointment isn’t there, it could be similar to what happened to my mother and sister earlier today” (even if that didn’t make any sense).

She looked again at the sheet and then, believe it or not, she said “You’re four hours late for your appointment”! I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, so keeping a straight face, I solemnly declared: “I was riding my bicycle!” Our short dialogue was replete with non sequiturs.

We had merrily gone from the sublime to the ridiculous and had reached another covid-nuttery stalemate, so it was time once again for the magic escape clause: “OK, I’ll give you five minutes” – and I chatted with my father for half an hour. Flann O’Brien at his most absurdly creative couldn’t improve on this.



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