An everyday story of why MRSA is rife in Britain

pic of an arm affected by mrsa

What it looks like – a typical case of MRSA infection

I found this story in the Daily Telegraph, an account by a lady called Sarah Burnett.

Two weeks ago, my domestic partner Troy suffered an attack of acute pancreatitis. It’s a recurring condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed and releases enzymes that encourage it to start digesting itself and other internal organs.
After a restless night, he woke up on the Wednesday morning with severe abdominal pain, rolling around in agony. Not only is it incredibly painful but complications can be fatal.

An ambulance arrived promptly and the crew were diligent and professional, giving pain relief and making sure he was stable, before blue-lighting us to our nearest A&E, at the Chelsea and Westminster in South Kensington.

As a consultant radiologist, I have a great affection for this NHS flagship hospital. I spent much of my time as a medical student there, and it is where my daughter was born in 1997. But any fond memories that I once had have been shattered by my recent experience.

Reassurances are given regularly to the public about improvements in infection control in hospitals. After Troy’s operation, he was given a stomach drain to allow his pancreas to settle down, fitted with drips and a catheter to regulate his fluids – and spent the six days recuperating in a filthy ward.

The drip stand wheels were coated in years of grime and there were unpleasant looking stains on the walls. During one of my visits, I watched in dismay as the cleaner gave a cursory mop to the middle of the bay, considering the job done.

Troy’s own hygiene and comfort were no better attended. Too ill at first to wash his own face or brush his teeth, he was left to cope on his own; no one offered to help with his toilet. There was to be no bed bath, either.

Not that it would have been much use: Troy was admitted first thing Wednesday morning, but he was still lying in the same bedsheets on Friday night – by which point they had become stained with his blood.

When he arrived on the ward, a yellow plastic bag had been attached to his bedside trolley. It was for disposing of clinical waste destined for the incinerator. But one day it disappeared. I asked a nurse for another and was told: “We don’t do those any more.” Staff were seemingly expected to carry used drips, drains and catheters to a central bin area of the ward, increasing the risk of spreading infection.

At each visit, I checked under Troy’s bed and counted the cottonwool balls accumulating there. Once, I even found a used needle on his bedside trolley.

After a few days, Troy was feeling well enough to walk to the bathroom, so I asked for a pair of disposable foam slippers. Apparently, they don’t do those any more, either. He made it to the bathroom in his bare feet, only to find urine all over the floor. At that point, he did not feel it was worth the effort to complain again.

Even though Troy was on a surgical ward, among patients with open wounds, few people – visitors and medical staff alike – seemed to be following procedure regarding hand washing. A key component in controlling the spread of killer superbugs such as MRSA is the use of antibacterial gels.

There are signs throughout the hospital reminding people to rub their hands with gel from the dispensers at the end of each bed. In the six days I spent visiting Troy on the ward, I saw only two people follow this advice: a student nurse and a woman from Patientline, the company that provides the bedside television/telephone service.

Normal standards of hygiene also appeared to be lacking. One elderly man on the ward needed help being fed and could only drink water using a straw. When a nurse attending him accidentally knocked his sealed cup off his bedside table, the straw fell on the floor.

Without bothering to wipe up the water, she refilled his cup and gave it back to him, popping in the filthy straw. He subsequently developed such bad diarrhoea that he was incontinent. Despite the risks of keeping him in an open surgical ward, he was not transferred to a side room.

Even when it came to the handling of bodily fluids, including blood, hospital protocol was not rigorously followed. I was surprised to see a senior doctor in A&E trying to take a blood sample without wearing gloves. Later, Troy’s drip was replaced by a member of the surgical team without the use of gloves.

When a nurse absent-mindedly used his drip arm to measure Troy’s blood pressure, the inflatable cuff caused the puncture to leak and blood to drip on to the floor. “That’s not supposed to happen,” she said, and walked away, saying that she was now on a break.

Sadly, the wanton lack of knowledge about the dangers of blood-borne infection appears endemic in the NHS. Another patient told me that he had taken his young son into Casualty at the Hammersmith, a major teaching hospital in west London.

The child had a cut on his head and the treatment involved glueing the edges of the wound together. He was shocked to see that the tube of glue was open, having already been used on another wound. When he queried whether this might be dangerous, he was told that because the glue is so expensive, it was normal practice to use the same tube to treat several patients.

The outbreak of C. diff in Kent was blamed on lack of funds and target-chasing. But maintaining basic levels of hygiene costs little, and much of it is simply common sense; I can only hope that the staff I witnessed neglecting basic cleanliness on the wards do not behave like that in their own homes.

Many critics call for the return of Matron, the figure of authority with the power to demand her ward be cleaned or be closed as a health risk, someone who is loyal to the patient rather than the hospital bureaucrat. At the Chelsea and Westminster, I spotted a “Surgical Matron”. She was not wearing a uniform and was sitting at the nurses’ station trying to resolve some micro-political staff issue. At no point during Troy’s six-day stay did I see her set foot in any clinical bay or speak to any patient.

The Government has announced plans to double the number of matrons. If you have twice as many of these matrons, it will be a waste of double the money. We have to develop zero tolerance for sloppy, lazy attitudes to infection control, or more lives will be lost to hospital?

Since including this article it has attracted a lot of visitors – so I am just including this resource here which looks like a good source of help and advice for MRSA sufferers. Hope it helps you.

2 thoughts on “An everyday story of why MRSA is rife in Britain”

  1. I was searching for ‘foot pain relief’ at google and got this your post (‘An everyday story of why MRSA is rife in Britain’) in search results. Not very relevant result, but still interesting to read 🙂

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