A mother with incurable cancer has told of her "hell on Earth" experience as she spent 26 hours waiting for a bed at the Royal Victoria Hospital's emergency department.
Maria Gibney (51), from Belfast, had a kidney removed as a result of cancer but the disease continued to spread and she now has secondary lung cancer.
The mother-of-one's condition is treatable, but not curable.
On Tuesday, April 29, Maria phoned the RVH emergency department for help, but was told to go to Belfast City Hospital to see her oncologist.
In excruciating pain, she went to the City Hospital but there were no beds available there, so she was transferred to the Royal.
When Maria was being assessed, a nurse at the RVH complained about the City Hospital sending patients there.
Maria said: "She went off on 'how dare they do this, I'm sick of them doing this'. I couldn't believe it."
Maria was brought to the nurses' station, where she remained in a wheelchair for four hours until a trolley became available. She remained on that trolley for the next 22 hours.
"I was there for a total of 26 hours", she said. "I kept asking for a bed. I kept asking for somewhere to lie down. I was in excruciating pain and all I had been given was two paracetamol."
When Maria went to the bathroom she saw blood swabs lying on the floor and was hit by a "horrendous" smell in the room.
At 11pm she was taken to a side ward where she was given steroid injections. Then she was transferred back to the nurses' station where her trolley was placed between two male patients.
She said: "You had to slither down the bed unaided to go to the toilet.
"There was no room for the nurses to move the blood pressure cart, so we had to slide down the bed or sit up at the top of the bed."
"During that whole evening of being horrendously dealt with, I wouldn't have minded so much if I had been put in a corner, against the wall, but can you imagine being side by side with strangers – like sardines?"
The City Hospital had recommended Maria get an MRI scan to check for signs that the cancer might have spread.
But before she was given a bed on a ward, a doctor at the Royal had wanted to send her home without any further examination or treatment.
Maria said: "I got my MRI scan after I fought with the doctor who wanted to send me home after sitting on the trolley all night with no scan, nothing.
"I was crying my eyes out – it was hell on Earth. When I needed the NHS, it just wasn't there."
Now Maria worries about how she will be treated when her cancer worsens. "When I get really bad there is no way I'm going to the hospital for care," she vowed. "I'm not leaving the safety and security of my own house to go there and be treated worse than an animal.
"An animal gets fed and watered. I had one cup of tea, one round of toast and sat with that on my knee on the trolley. I never had a bed the whole night."
Maria says she believes the Health Minister is ultimately responsible for her grim ordeal.
"I would like to ask the Health Minister why our health service is allowed to be run like this?" she said. "I'm holding him accountable. It's not the doctors' and nurses' fault."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The minister takes very seriously complaints about the standard of care provided by our hospitals. It is wholly understandable that patients expect to get the best treatment the health service can provide, and in a timely manner.
"That is why the minister has asked the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority to review the emergency care service provided by the Belfast Trust. The minister expects to receive the RQIA's report in June, and in the meantime the trust is implementing a quality improvement plan in response to the serious failings identified in the RQIA's inspection report published in April.
"The trust also provides direct access arrangements at the Belfast City Hospital for cancer, haematology, renal and urology patients.
"The department understands that the Belfast Trust is aware of this case and it is being investigated through the trust's complaints procedure."
A spokeswoman for the Belfast Trust said: "Belfast Trust cannot discuss an individual's care or treatment. However, we do take concerns about patient care very seriously and we are sorry that this patient's experience was not up to the standard we would expect.
"We are aware of this patient's experience and are investigating it through the trust's complaints procedure. In the meantime, we would be happy to meet with the patient and further discuss these concerns.
"The Royal Victoria Hospital's emergency department had a very busy night on Tuesday and it is with regret that patients had long delays. We recognise that it is frustrating for patients. However, staff do everything they can to ensure patients are seen quickly and cared for appropriately while they are waiting to be admitted."
Maria's diary... her long hours waiting for hospital treatment
Tuesday April 29
12.30pm. I took excruciating pains. I phoned the Royal Victoria Hospital emergency department but was told to go to the Belfast City Hospital to see my oncologist.
1.30pm. I arrived at the City Hospital but there were no beds available there, so they transferred me over to the Royal.
3pm. There were no ambulances available either, so my husband took me and I arrived at the Royal.
3.20pm. I was assessed by a nurse. She was irate that the City Hospital had sent me to them. It was like Mary and Joseph at the inn – we do not have any room. I would have rather gone to a stable than being put where I was.
11pm. I wasn't seen again for almost eight hours. They brought me in to what is like a side ward, and a doctor told me he was going to give me steroid injections. We were there for about an hour before I was told that I had to move because the area was allocated to somebody else.
Midnight. I was put back round to my trolley at the nurses' station. I literally had to climb up the bed to get into the space between these two men. When the nurses came round to do their observation there was no room for them. I remained there for five hours.
Wednesday April 30
5am. A nurse brought me to the minor ailment cubicles to have some sleep. I slept for about an hour.
6am. A doctor came round and said: "Oh, I think we will send you home." I said: "I think not. I'm not going home. I didn't spend all these hours in here to be sent home and you can't tell me for definite that it isn't cancer." I sent my husband home. He was at the bottom of my bed and there was no room for him to step back for me to go to the toilet.
8am. I was taken round to an overspill ward. They came round with breakfast. So from 3pm the previous day I had got two cups of tea and two rounds of toast. The area where I was placed was like a ward but I was still only on a trolley bed. I remained there until the 26th hour of my stay.
At one point I got up off the bed and said to the nurse: "Look, is there a bed?" I hadn't been washed, I hadn't been able to go to the toilet properly. A member of staff said to me as a joke: "We have a 25-hour cut-off line – if you aren't getting a bed by 25 hours they kick you out". I went up to the nurse in charge and it was as if by miraculous intervention she said, 'I've just found you a bed'. I was put up in to ward seven and it was like I was in a completely different hospital. The ward was amazing, but it wasn't worth that wait.
12.30pm. I was transferred to a side ward on ward seven.
Thursday May 1
I had my MRI scan.
Friday May 2
11.30am. I got my MRI results and was told I could go home. I was ready to leave after I saw the pain doctor.
9.10pm. I received my medication and was finally able to go home.