Thu | Aug 16, 2018

Melody Cammock-Gayle: Cold, callous care at University Hospital

Published:Saturday | July 4, 2015 | 12:00 AM

My mother was recently admitted to the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI), Ward 3, my first experience of what a gravely ill patient may expect at UC (the usage endures). This encounter has made me realise, first hand, that the hospital is in dire need of help this side of the grave.

On Friday, May 8, I took my mother to the Accident & Emergency (A&E) Unit because she was having persistent diarrhoea and great difficulty breathing. We arrived about 6 p.m. and went through the screening process. I specifically chose UHWI's A&E because I knew a senior doctor there very well and figured that my mom would be fine under her watchful eye. I never dreamed that my mom would have to be admitted. My mother, Monica Cammock, had never been seriously ill, let alone hospitalised other than to have babies. I thought my mom would be out before nightfall and be back in the comfort of her own home.

A&E's seamless screening process diagnosed her problem as pneumonia and at 10:45 p.m., when I was assured that my mom was stable and would be admitted as soon as a bed was ready on Ward 3, I left. I was given no other information, except that she would be on Ward 3.

I arrived anxiously at the stated ward the next day, Saturday, approximately 8:30 a.m., long before visiting hours. My mother's bed was placed in the first section of the ward beside the nurses' station, a bed position that gave me hope for close attention to her needs.


Early happenings


Because I got there so early, the curtains were drawn as patients were being tidied. While I waited for that process to finish, I heard another patient groaning and calling out to the nurses while they passed up and down on Ward 3. Several minutes later, a nurse got up from her station, angrily drew the curtain and shouted at the patient, "Yuh cyaan wait, yuh not dying." I was aghast at this cold, insensitive and unprofessional response to the needs of a patient; but that was only the first of many similar acts that I would witness on that ward.

Optimist that I was and having had no experience in dealing with hospitals alongside an expectation that my mom, a happy 87-year-old grandmother, would be out shortly, I took nothing with me but some wet wipes and adult diapers. At no point was I told what I should bring in.

To my shock, I discovered that, except for the bed, I needed to take everything my mom needed, including the basic bed linen, palatable food, toilet paper and utensils. Despite the alleged free health care, I had to buy three different prescriptions, on different days, during my mother's five-day stay. Of course, that meant I had to leave my mom to visit pharmacies outside the hospital to fill the prescriptions because the hospital did not have the medication she needed.

On Saturday, not only was I given a prescription to fill but I also had to locate a lab to do the stool test (the hospital lab being closed). Off I went to fill the prescription, find an open lab, submit the sample to a late-opening lab on that Saturday afternoon, and gobble down some fast food. I was away for about two hours.

Before I left, my weak mom had been put on a bedpan and that's where she was still hunched when I returned. My mom said no one had checked on her during the time I was gone. This upset even the doctor who arrived at the same time I did and saw my mom perched precariously on the bedpan.

Added to this, on that first Saturday evening, the porridge provided by the hospital for supper was still on the table beside my mother's bed. It was cold and was just left there to gather dust. Wondering if my mom had been too weak to eat the meal, I calmly asked the nurse why my mom had not eaten. Her dry response was, "We have other people to feed."

Understanding the strain, I asked for a spoon to feed my mom. The nurse said they had none but she could give me a fork. As it turned out, the porridge had set and the fork became the better utensil to use. So, I took the advice of another patient's visitor and went to the nearby commissary to buy a plastic teaspoon.

Saturday was really my baptism by fire in Ward 3. During visiting hours, the moment my friend Cheryl stepped into Ward 3, where she had been a patient, she exclaimed that it was her worst experience with nurses and their care. Cheryl related her story of how badly the nurses had treated her, which was now sounding very familiar. Cheryl advised me to get my own nurse, whereupon I jumped into action to have round-the-clock care for my mom.


Taking turns


Between my own helper, Miss Pat, my mom's helper, Miss Andy, two practical nurses, Alicia and Aba, and myself, we took on the 24-hour charge to watch over my mom as best as we could.

But this backfired and resulted in what seemed to be a vacation for the nurses on duty as they left her care completely up to us ladies. They reluctantly came over even when we asked for help. In one instance, I filled a prescription and returned to the hospital with medication prescribed by the dermatologist. I was advised to hand the parcel over to the nurse on duty so they could administer it accordingly. That medication was subsequently passed to my non-medical team/caregivers for application. I brought this to the attention of the head nurse on duty. However, a month after my mother's passing, these items are still unopened.

Meal time on Sunday was another disaster. With diarrhoea still unchecked after three days in the hospital, accompanied by sporadic spikes of fever, laboured breathing and skin rashes, my mom grew weaker, yet the hospital provided a large plate of rice and peas and chicken. I approached the nurse yet again and told her that my mom clearly would be unable to manage that meal and asked if she could arrange for some soup instead. Her snippy response was, "Ah dat dem send."

Some days later, my mom took her final breath.

From my experience, these are my humble suggestions to Dr Cecil White, whose office advised me to write a letter. When you admit a patient to the hospital, please: (1) provide the family with a complete list of items needed for the patient's stay at the hospital; (2) conduct psychometric assessments for all prospective nurses; (3) do systematic reviews of nurses; (4) implement a patient-visitor feedback mechanism with a quarterly reward system for nurses; (5) introduce awards of excellence for deserving personnel; and (6) file complaints and address them within 48 hours.

Do you have a patient charter? If yes, live by it. If no, set up one immediately and commit to its deliverables. There MUST be a promise and delivery of excellence and accountability. Get a team of serious-minded individuals to assist in quality assurance and request the help of experts in fundraising.

Melody Cammock-Gayle is director of MC&A, a marketing and communications firm. Email feedback to and