Ann Clwyd: 'My husband died because people didn’t care’
Ann Clwyd, who shocked fellow MPs with a harrowing account of her husband’s treatment in hospital, talks about her crusade to restore compassion to the NHS
Picture: Ann Clwyd MP: 'As my husband lay dying, someone put the lights on and called: ''Anyone for breakfast?”'
Ann Clwyd will is often jolted from her sleep by a familiar nightmare. “I wake in a cold sweat, always with the same image,” she says. In the scene that she cannot banish from her memory, her husband Owen is shivering in a hospital bed with his life ebbing away.
Her story of how he died “like a battery hen”, crushed against the bars of his NHS bed with an ill-fitting oxygen mask cutting into his face, this week provoked horror at the “almost callous lack of care” in the hours before Owen Roberts, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, lost his life to hospital-induced pneumonia.
The day after revealing her ordeal – and his – Ann Clwyd, the 75-year-old Labour MP for Cynon Valley, sits in her Commons office, scrolling through the hundreds of emails from those left aghast by her story. “I felt ashamed of my profession,” wrote one retired GP. “I cried at your distress.”
Ms Clwyd, the doughtiest of campaigners and a long-time witness to the plight of others, has also wept, most recently in the Commons chamber yesterday when she asked David Cameron about standards of compassion in the NHS. “Before this week, I only ever cried once in public. That was in a torture centre in Iraq, with Iraqi Kurds bringing relics of their murdered relatives.”
Saddam Hussein’s former killing chambers could not be more distant from the flagship University Hospital of Wales, in Cardiff, where her husband died six weeks ago, aged 73. Ms Clwyd’s story is made all the more appalling by the fact that it is set not in some barbaric outpost of civilisation but in a centre of clinical excellence dedicated to saving lives.
And yet, on October 23, 2012, Ms Clwyd sat helpless at her husband’s bedside. She and a friend had covered her husband with a towel to try to keep him warm, and put socks on his feet because they were hanging from the end of the bed.
“I used a dampened tissue to wipe his eye, which was infected. His lips were dry from a fan that had been left on a nearby bedside, but no one came to give him a drink. He was so cold under a thin cotton cover. A friend had asked if he could be moved from the ward into an empty room, but was told that it was being kept empty. I really do feel he died of cold, he died from people who didn’t care. He died because people decided he was going to die.”
Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, told an audience at The King’s Fund that patients were experiencing “coldness, resentment, indifference” and “even contempt” in some hospitals.
He identified poor care as “perhaps the biggest problem of all facing the NHS”.
He said distressing cases were not “isolated incidents” but were in places part of the “fabric”.
In the worst hospitals are care homes, he said there was "a kind of normalisation of cruelty, where the unacceptable is legitimised and the callous becomes mundane".
Today, Dr Carter and colleagues from organisations including Macmillan Cancer Support, the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, acknowledge the scale of the task to eradicate poor care for the elderly.
They say that “key areas” need to be changed to improve the situation - but pin the blame on the way hospitals work rather than staff themselves.
They write: “The last year has seen a string of reports highlighting examples of inadequate care for older people in hospital.
"While there is much to be proud about within the NHS, sadly we know that patients on older people’s wards are sometimes let down by systemic failings in our hospitals.”
Older people - who make up the majority of patients in hospital - must be put “at the centre of care” and given the opportunity to “make informed choices” about how they are treated, they say.
And hospitals must have “a culture of honesty and openness that enables staff to raise concerns and challenge poor practice”.
One of the hallmarks of the Mid Staffordshire hospitals scandal, that led to up to 1,200 mainly elderly people dying due to sub-standard care between 2005 and 2009, was that staff concerns were often dismissed by managers.
All relevant staff must be trained to care for older people, emphasise the letter’s signatories, who also warn that there must be enough staff on duty to provide safe care.
“Unfortunately, evidence suggests that older people in hospitals regularly suffer from a severe shortage of nurses and healthcare assistants,” they write.