Bullying in our public health system

Author’s name withheld on request

If someone was to ask me about my understanding of bullying, a few weeks ago I would have reflected on the time I bullied our workshop apprentice whilst the older men around us cheered and berated the poor guy.  Thank you for refusing to put up with my misguided anger Scooter, you were stronger than me at that time.

I may have also reflected on my children’s experience halfway through high school.  They were ostracised from their group of friends due to the boredom of a couple of kids and the belief of their parents that, if my children put up with it, it would resolve itself.

The last place I expected to be bullied though was in an Australian public hospital.

I best include a little information about myself so you can better understand the situation I have found myself in. I am in my early 40s and have been a high-level quadriplegic for the past 20 years. I have a severe pressure wound that has had me restricted to bed for the last eight months or so, 24/7. The chronic pain I have suffered since I got my disability has proven to be one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to overcome. For the past eight months I have been experiencing bouts of a condition known as autonomic hyper dysreflexia – a potentially life-threatening medical emergency suffered by a small amount of spinal-cord injured people with symptoms that include high blood pressure, pounding headache, flushed face, sweating above the level of injury, goose flesh below the level of injury, nasal stuffiness, nausea, tachycardia and high blood pressure. I also had a soul crushing migraine that would make me wish that I was dead. 

One of the unfortunate facts about autonomic hyper dysreflexia is that it is misunderstood and practitioners do not typically have any knowledge of how to deal with it. For example, every time I was admitted into hospital I had five ward doctors standing around me uncertain as to what to do to relieve the situation. 

It had been decided by my nursing network and a number of health professionals who had been reviewing my wound progression in my home, that I must attend a hospital emergency department due to the high possibility that I may suffer an uncontrollable attack of this condition and die. I had my support worker pack a bag for me and I called an ambulance during the early evening.

As I was waiting to be processed and assigned to an appropriate ward so that I could receive appropriate treatment from a physician with some expertise in my illness, I was approach by an irate doctor swinging her arms around in an aggressive manner, trying her best to intimidate me and make me go home. 

She made it quite clear that I would not be getting any treatment on my wound through the hospital. She continued by asking me what I expected the hospital to do about my situation, to which I replied “I don’t know what you can do for me, I just know something needs to be done because I am not safe at home and I believe the hospital is the only place for me to be where an appropriate plan of action could be made.”

Unfortunately, as I have learnt over a 20 year period dealing with the public hospital system, this sort of response is not uncommon. The chronic health concerns of people with disability are deemed too hard to deal with and this is somehow my fault.

At that point I had to do what is the only course of action available to resist this form of bullying and intimidation: stand my ground. I refused to just go home and asserted my right to receive treatment for a life-threatening injury which eventually resulted in my being admitted to have my condition stabilised and assessed. I still have a way to go and I anticipate further battles to get my needs met.

I understand that hospital emergency departments are stressful places and that the Coronavirus pandemic has only increased the pressure felt by the people who work there. But this does not justify the mistreatment of people with needs that are different to the patients they typically deal with and we must not accept it.

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