This following is a true story.
We were going out for dinner. My girlfriend – now wife – works in the charity sector and that evening, more than 12 years ago now, an elderly, doughty, eager volunteer was cooking for us at her home in west London. I had a bit of a sniffle and, fearful I might pass it on to our 90-year-old host, my girlfriend mixed a sachet of Beechams powder in a glass of water, despite my protests that I’d never had the mixture before.
I took a couple of swigs, and put the glass down. 'Disgusting stuff, I’m not drinking any more', I said to the consternation of my girlfriend and her family. We went out, had a couple of glasses of wine, and returned back to her family home, where what appeared to be a committee awaited our arrival.
‘You shouldn’t have Beechams with vodka,’ my girlfriend’s mother said with concern. ‘I didn’t’, I protested. ‘Well, that’s what it tasted like,’ - going on to say she had taken it off her husband who thought he might as well finish it off; waste not want not.
My girlfriend leapt to my defence; she had poured the drink, of course she didn’t use vodka. She used water from a Vittel bottle that was sitting in a bedroom. It was then the reality of what had happened became apparent.
For another family member was a then biology student and one of her tasks was to preserve insects using methanol or wood alcohol, which she had decanted from a larger bottle – marked appropriately – into the much-easier-to-carry Vittel bottle - marked as water - which was left on a side in the bedroom in which she was staying. It was this bottle which my girlfriend used to the mix the Beechams and three of us had managed to drink it.
We all felt fine but rang NHS Direct just in case. The person on the other end was reassuring and thought as long as we kept drinking water there would be no ill-effects, but she rang the poisons unit just in case. Within minutes she rang back and urged us to go to A&E immediately.
It was almost midnight, I think on a Friday night. I remember moaning the last thing I wanted was to have my stomach pumped. A digital display at the A&E at Charing Cross Hospital indicated a wait of about five hours. The woman on reception laughed at what had happened; ‘oh they’ll give you alcohol for that’, she chuckled and told us not to worry about the wait as we were urgent cases who needed to be dealt with. She was right. In minutes we were ushered into rooms and details were being taken down. Alcohol, specifically ethanol, was, indeed, the answer, it turned out. It was explained that essentially, once digested methanol becomes formaldehyde and consumed in sufficient quantities can blind or kill. Ethanol - the sort of alcohol we drink conventionally - basically latches on to the methanol and, comparatively harmlessly, flushes it though the system through the kidneys before it becomes toxic.
So we needed booze and spirits in particular. A bottle of Polish vodka was brought from the freezer at the family home; cupboards, doctors’ drawers, and anywhere else were raided for bottles of spirit; the local off licences had sadly closed.
We were moved to the paediatrics room of the A&E department where we were instructed to drink; from memory, we needed to drink a double every half an hour. We were there for six hours. Elsewhere in A&E, lots of teenagers dressed as school kids came in suffering from various injuries; there was a school disco themed party going on at a club somewhere. Later a man came in with blood caked to one side of his face. He had been mugged. My girlfriend’s mother was now an exceedingly entertaining drunk and invited him to come round for dinner sometime. My girlfriend’s father had to be woken every thirty minutes to have alcohol poured down his throat.
At about 6 or 7am, alcohol drips had finally been located. I rang my parents to tell them what was happening and we were finally taken off to various wards to be cured.
I remember my first proper day in hospital quite fondly. I was drunk. I remember charging around the ward, tugging my drip along, pushing my way into the corridor to make calls on my mobile, much to the annoyance of medical staff. My second day was predictably wretched and my mobile was stolen.
We were all kept on alcohol drips permanently for the entire weekend. The poisons unit – based somewhere else – was closed until Monday and consultants couldn’t be sure we were in the clear until the unit was able to provide confirmation. Ultimately, I was first home after discharging myself on Monday afternoon, keen to get back to work. It was a mistake, I was ill for several more days.
Thankfully, however, we all recovered fully but I gather we ended up in a medical journal somewhere, no doubt an article explaining how an entire family of apparently intelligent people can be really stupid.
I recount this lengthy tale now as the A&E which may have saved my life and eyesight is set to be replaced. At a meeting of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, future plans for healthcare in the area were rubberstamped this morning, ignoring protesters outside, among whose numbers included local MP Andy Slaughter.
The A&E at Hammersmith hospital is to be closed and Charing Cross is going to face dramatic change. The plan will see the hospital demolished, 55 per cent of the land sold off to the private sector for development. In its place a local hospital is to be created with an ‘emergency service appropriate’ for such an establishment. No one knows what this means. The local Conservative Party insists the A&E is remaining. This is what Peter Graham, the chairman of Hammersmith Conservatives, told me today:
I have decided that the outcome should be that Ealing and Charing Cross hospitals should continue to offer an A and E service, even if it is a different shape or size from that currently offered.'
And, it is true, it will remain. Until it is demolished. After that, no one can promise anything as that hasn't been decided. Jeremy Hunt's 'different shape' in unknown.
But, what we do know is that the numbers of inpatient beds at Charing Cross will be reduced drastically, from 360 to just 24, and we know it will not be a full, operational A&E unit, as it is now, as it simply will not have the capacity. If another family, in years to come, pitch up after being similarly poisoned, would they be treated? Or, would they be shunted elsewhere, despite the dangers that failing to start treatment swiftly can pose? Currently, it's impossible to know.
It may be that this £400million reorganisation is the best option for people in West London. In their statement, the Trust say:
'Today our Trust board approved plans to transform our healthcare services over the next five years. The clinical strategy considered today is designed to improve clinical outcomes and patient experience, to help people stay as healthy as possible and to increase access to the most effective specialist care.
'While continuing to provide excellent urgent and emergency services, we have to transform the way that we care for the vastly increasing number of people with long-term conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, and for our growing frail, elderly population.'
It has, nevertheless, provoked huge fury and upset. The campaign to save Charing Cross hospital is very vocal and it was the major issue which led to the Conservative Party losing control of the council at the last local elections, provoking much bitterness and accusations that the Labour Party lied during the campaign.
But, it is, perhaps, the insistence that an A&E will continue there, when it's patently obvious the current service will not continue and a less comprehensive service will appear in its place, that is causing the most frustration of all.