'Scene from a horror movie': Mum describes nightmare ED experience with sick child

A nurse at the ED told the mum and daughter there was a wait of at least six hours and they were...
A nurse at the ED told the mum and daughter there was a wait of at least six hours and they were 53rd on a waitlist to be seen. Photo: File image
Opinion: My teenage daughter said she felt unwell and she was running a fever. We tested for Covid-19, which came back negative, so we thought it would be a short-lived bug and would run its course.

After two days, her fever was relentless. She was utterly miserable. Paracetamol and ibuprofen would lower her temperature, but within a couple of hours it would roar back up. I rang the nurse at our local GP to ask if bringing my daughter in was me being over-anxious. The answer was no, come in. She was diagnosed as having a possible kidney infection and antibiotics were prescribed.

After a few days, my daughter's condition hadn't improved. Our GP asked to see her and a new diagnosis of pneumonia was given. A different antibiotic was prescribed. I had spoken every evening to our hard-working GP and she advised that, if we were at all concerned over the weekend, we should go to Wellington Hospital's Emergency Department (ED).

The following day my daughter, who is not one to complain, woke me up to tell me she felt worse - nauseous, high heart rate and she was dizzy. We jumped into the car and headed to Wellington ED.

On arrival, the waiting room did not look as full as I feared it would be. There were lots of adults all in varying states of sickness.

There was a police officer monitoring one person who appeared to have a smashed-up hand and he was frequently exchanging heated words with two other people who looked like they were struggling with mental health issues. The police officer would occasionally offer words of calm and authority. I was so pleased he was there. There were elderly folk lying down across plastic chairs. There was rubbish scattered across the floor. The place looked awful. We took a seat and waited to be triaged while my daughter lay her head in my lap shivering with fever.

Eventually we were called in to see the triage nurse. The nurse told us that we faced a wait of at least six hours and that was the best-case scenario. He told us we were 53rd on a waitlist to be seen. It was 6am. We had no food, no pain relief, no bedding and my daughter was miserable. As a mum I was torn - sit and wait out six hours or more in the so-called 'emergency' department, or head home. My wonderful GP said we could ring her during the day and check in, so I made a choice to go home. I just wanted to get out of the awfulness that was the ED.

We got home and I emailed my GP straight away. My daughter had stabilised with both Paracetamol and Ibuprofen on board but she was lying still, quiet, pale and obviously very sick. My GP rang. She offered to directly refer my daughter to the hospital paediatrician and advised us to head back immediately.

In a terrifying car trip to hospital, my daughter couldn't speak, she asked to lie flat in the car, she was finding breathing difficult and her temperature had spiked to 40.0 and her heart rate was 135bpm. She was the sickest I could ever remember seeing her.

When we got to ED, it was fuller than it had been at 6pm. More sick, poor, sad, desperate, frustrated, anxious, vulnerable people. I told the receptionist that my GP had directly referred us and she asked us to take a seat. Within five minutes, a triage nurse arrived, examined my daughter, read my GP's referral and said she'd be finding us a bed if there was one. I sent a prayer to anyone who might be listening.

We were then ushered into a cubicle.

A nurse came in. She was clearly busy, stressed and tired, but was immediately kind and compassionate. She talked to my daughter and me like we were humans in need, all the while efficiently going about her business of assessing my daughter's health. She explained the process and what was most likely to happen from here. I felt such relief. We were finally exactly where we needed to be.

Within an hour a house surgeon arrived. She was also kind, beautifully efficient, and communicated clearly what she was doing and noticing. She explained what tests were required and that a registrar would be there soon. Within another hour the registrar came. Lots of listening to lungs ensued and again the care was calm, compassionate, informative and efficient.

As we waited on the results, I got to chat to our nurse as she came in to check on us and take my daughter's vital signs. I told her we'd left earlier, having been told it would have been a six-hour plus wait. She looked completely worn down and said if we were told six hours it would more likely to be 10 hours.

I told her my daughter had asked me why it was called an Emergency Department if we were 53rd in a queue. I observed that the system looked to be broken. She nodded in agreement. She said that if I was at all motivated, I should contact Health Minister, Andrew Little. His office email and phone number were on a card the nurse handed me. The nurses have all tried to have their voices heard, but to no avail. They now need everyone's help.

I was very impressed by this small step to try to achieve change via the only person who has the power to do something. Desperate times call for desperate measures and our health workforce is truly desperate.

I said to her I wondered what he'd think if one of his loved ones had to go through this process. She said she and her colleagues wonder about this all the time.

Eventually, the results came in and the Emergency Paediatric Registrar came back and she informed us we were being admitted. She said that we would start IV antibiotics and hopefully start to finally win the battle. However, the nurse said we might have a wee wait as there were only two orderlies working and they were in charge of cleaning, security and moving patients for the entire Emergency Department. Two people.

This explained why our nurse had had to clean the cubicle on our arrival to it - our nurses are having to multi-task - be a nurse and the cleaner. As if they don't have enough to do?

Scene from a horror movie

I was not prepared for what happened next. The orderly came to show us to the children's ward. In order to get there we had to walk through the main space of ED. To say I was shocked was an understatement. We'd been relatively sheltered around the corner in the paediatric area. In the main ED, it looked like a scene from a movie, a horror one.

Every cubicle and every corridor was full, people packed into every nook and cranny. I suddenly felt very emotional. I felt overwhelmed, I felt sad, I felt angry. All these people were so vulnerable. They all looked very unwell. Many were oblivious to their surroundings - too ill to care or even register. So much vulnerability and lack of resources. They were mainly poor, mainly non-white, mainly low socio-economic status, mainly ageing or very young.

Nurses and doctors moved busily around them. How were they not overwhelmed, I thought? How do they do this? How is this their 'normal'? I was overwhelmed again - but this time with respect for these super human health workers.

I also felt guilt. We'd been fast-tracked, even though it had taken five hours to be admitted. We got fast-tracked because of our privilege. I had been able to afford to visit the GP twice in a week. I had an amazingly responsive GP. I knew how to advocate and fight for my child. If I hadn't known how to do all these things or had the financial ability to cover the costs involved we wouldn't be walking through to be admitted. We'd probably still have been in that waiting room or at home feeling helpless, anxious and hopeless.

We've got this incredible workforce. Amazing people. Professional, knowledgeable, kind, ridiculously hard-working, patient, tolerant and so caring. And somehow, they turn up day in and day out and work in this broken down system. It is utterly incredible and yet shameful at the same time. It's high time something is done to improve this.

*RNZ has agreed to protect the identity of the mother who wrote this first-person account