Within 15 minutes of arriving at the Ulster Hospital’s A&E on Saturday night I was already being heckled by a drunken patient.
It was just after 11pm — the pubs had only just started kicking out customers — and yet here was a young woman so drunk she felt it was acceptable to shout at a complete stranger in the middle of an A&E with patients and their worried relatives only a few feet away.
Lying on a trolley and peering over her blanket, she slurred: “Oi you, are you a tourist? Oi, who are you? Are you a tourist?”
Standing next to me were four police officers with a man wearing a blood-splattered jumper and a bandage on his forehead.
He had been brought to the A&E for medical attention to the wound on his head after he was caught drink-driving.
After several minutes of shouting from the woman on the trolley I told her I worked in the unit. This seemed to placate her, but within a few minutes she shouted again: “Oi you, why aren’t you working? If you work here you should be wearing a uniform and doing some work.”
I looked at some of the nurses and they just rolled their eyes— apparently she is a regular face and they are used to her outbursts.
Not long after, we were subjected to a ugly scene when another drunk patient took exception to our photographer.
As he took photographs of a member of staff, the man — with blood trickling down his face from a cut on his forehead — pulled himself up from his trolley and started towards our photographer. Within seconds he pinned him up against the wall by the throat. It took a couple of nursing staff and a member of security to pull him off.
Again, none of the staff seemed fazed by what had just happened. The man is another regular at the unit.
It was not the last time we saw security staff, all wearing stab-proof vests, wrestle with him over the next few hours.
One of them explained: “There are four of us here dealing with this patient and there are four of us on duty to cover the whole hospital.
“That means if there is an emergency on one of the wards, if a patient becomes violent, we have to make a decision about what we are going to do.
“If someone is smashing up equipment we may have to let them get on with it, even though they are causing damage, if it means we are stopping someone getting hurt elsewhere.”
He continued: “We’ve had to put this patient on the floor four times since he got here. He has decided he wants to go home but the doctor has deemed he is not fit to be discharged because he is drunk and has a head injury so we have powers to detain him.”
In another cubicle lay a young girl completely incapacitated by drink and totally unaware of her surroundings. As we stood watching domestics, nurses, doctors and porters busy tending to their patients, an ambulance crew arrived with another drunk patient. This time, the man had dislocated his shoulder and needed sedation.
But this presents another dilemma for staff. One nurse explained: “As he is under the influence of alcohol it could lead to complications.
“We have to follow a very fine balancing act because the sedative could cause him to vomit.”
Ulster Hospital staff deal with alcohol-related admissions every day of the week.
They were the first to admit they were far from busy on Saturday night, but as time went on it became obvious they spend most of their time dealing with people either completely inebriated, or injured due to drinking.
One nurse said: “I think we should charge people for coming to A&E when they are drunk. The paramedics have to bring them in even if they don’t need medical attention. We once had a girl who was out with her friends and was drunk and one of them pulled her hair so she dialled 999.
“When the ambulance arrived she insisted they bring her to A&E so she ended up here taking up our time and costing the health service money.”
It demonstrates the unnecessary pressure being placed on resources which would undoubtedly be eased significantly if staff in A&E units were not constantly nursing drunks.