This article was written in 2002; we've published a more recent perspective on this issue - What are bed blockers, and are they a sign of a failing NHS?
'Now you are Chairman' said my postman on the day I was appointed 'you can sort out that hospital of ours. It's full of old dears who shouldn't be there. Bed-blockers they are. No wonder my lad can't have his op.'
Over the years I have met lots of dears, young and old, occupying that most scarce of health resource - a hospital bed.
Take Maisey, one of our Enigma decoders in the War, buried two husbands and with the most beautiful bright red fingernails I've ever seen on an 87 year old. She was wandering around the hospital totally lost, a long way from her ward. She had been waiting for a bed in a nursing home after having turned three down. Understandably, she refused to go into a home that was not up the road in the village of her birth. She was still waiting after four months for someone to die so she could take their room. 'I want to go to my Maker from my village' she said. If she had been my Gran, I would have agreed.
George, on the other hand, was 27 and an up-and-coming journalist. He came up from the West Country on the train to visit his Auntie, his only living relative. Over a cup of tea, he had dreadful pains. Twenty-four hours later he was in intensive care. A massive brain haemorrhage and complications left him in a persistent vegetative state. I held his auntie's hand as she sobbed at his bedside. It took nine months for the different authorities to stop arguing and to agree who should pay for a place in a specialist hospice, which would look after him - for life. Auntie visited him every day of his nine months in intensive care.
In the extended day surgery ward I found Wayne, sitting among the tonsillectomies and hernias. Three days later Wayne was still there. Sister was exasperated. 'He was only booked in overnight, but every evening he says he is in great pain' she explained. 'He says that he has no one to look after him at home and we can't just chuck him out. It isn't safe after his operation. I am desperate for the social worker to come and sort him out.' It took the social worker an hour to persuade him to go home with the promise of visits from a district nurse. 'Most people can't get out of hospital fast enough but he has found company here' she said. 'We feed him, we take his temperature, we talk to him. He has a constantly changing set of patients around him he can discuss the football with. He is scared silly of going home to loneliness. But we are a hospital and what can we do?'
In the stroke rehab unit every bed was occupied. The speech therapist had left and the smell of lunch wafted down the ward. An elderly lady was being helped into her wheel chair. She had received the OK to go back to her home in the nearby council sheltered housing complex and the nurse was explaining how lots of people would be coming to see her and help her. The ward clerk's face was wreathed in smiles. 'We have five people waiting in the main hospital to come to this rehab unit' she said. We are so short of beds and Mrs Jones's going will help a bit. But I wish we could sort out Mr George. He lives in a large and rambling house the other side of the city, totally unsuitable for him ever to go back to and it needs to be sold to pay for his care in a home. He'd love to go, but his family can't bear to see their inheritance disappear and are refusing to allow him to sell up. They have had such rows. It is very difficult for all involved. We have done all we can for him here. Mr G just sits and waits.'
A hospital is run by people for the care of people. Behind every list of numbers, every statistic, there are human beings with complex relationships and real needs - even bed-blockers.
This article was originally published in July 2002