A love letter to the Royal London Hospital

by Mary E Black

Increasingly, you are being knocked for six as COVID-19 invades.

Location: England
Published: Friday 27 March 2020
Royal London Hospital

As a public health doctor, I will do my bit to limit the damage of this global threat, but you – the hospital that has cared for me and my family for decades – will face the direct human cost, which will be in the thousands.

You will do it cheerfully and work long hours, and may not have enough supplies, tests, or ventilators. Your staff may have to make choices no doctor or nurse should, and they will have to live with that forever. Some may pay the ultimate price and, in saving patients, lose their own lives.

I walked along your façade today, past Victorian brick walls adorned with images from 100 years ago when you were a refuge for the poor of East London. Then, you delivered care without the effective medicines and shiny machines in the PFI-funded tower block that now casts a shadow over the pavement and your finances.

How well we know each other. You took my son’s tonsils out after years of sore throats – he’s now a six-foot-two surfer who fondly remembers your ice cream and jelly. I needed you when part of my baby’s placenta got stuck inside me and my haemoglobin dropped to six – you fixed me, and my daughter did not lose her mum. You sorted my damaged knee after I fell down an escalator at her graduation as a theoretical physicist (for the record, it was lunch time and I was sober).

When my husband grumbled about tummy pain on the morning of our Christmas party, you confirmed he had a mass – the surgeon who did the emergency operation that night dropped by at 4 am to show us photos of the biggest appendix he had ever seen.

‘Excellent’, we said, admiring the smartphone image. As fellow doctors we knew it could have been something much worse. You inserted a flexible colonoscope up his bottom to check him for years, just in case. Thank heavens for medical innovation; in earlier times he would have had a metre-long metal pole angled with military enthusiasm up his wot-sit.

Which parts of my family haven’t you seen? Last November we viewed my cervix together on a wide screen TV. The giant, pink, moisture-beaded doughnut was unnerving, but medication made the experience surreal and almost pleasant. I woke in agony at 5am two days later and was carried by aforementioned husband through your doors. Did I have an abdominal perforation from those cervical biopsies? Torrential diarrhoea gave the answer – food poisoning.

Your doctors and nurses tanked me up on morphine and IV fluids for three days and saved my kidneys. Thank you to the wise gastroenterologist who advised me to ‘stay on the ward a bit longer’ as I spouted confused nonsense as well as… you get my drift. A big shout out to Tower Hamlets Council’s environmental health team who gave that restaurant on Whitechapel Road the lowest hygiene rating of one, and then shut it down. We public health folk have our uses, and our contacts.

You try your best. Staff are competent and cheerful and know what they are doing. I can see most of their name badges, although some still dangle at groin level, are or have tiny print (a pet peeve). On your walls you have uplifting art. The food is not bad. Armies of volunteers explain the convoluted lift system.

You sometimes fail. Medical errors occur, as do hospital-acquired complications – but your complaint system responds. Over the years, letters have been lost, phones gone unanswered, and there have been occasional delays in my appointments, but all have got much better in recent years. You are on top of things.

A stream of fellow East-enders will head to your doors over the next days and weeks, and many will be frightened, breathless and terribly ill. You will be their port in the coming storm, as you have been mine. And this is why I write today, to tell you that I am grateful beyond belief that you are there. I am proud of you. Stay strong.

Mary E Black is board clinical director and director of health protection at Public Health Scotland. She can be found on Twitter.