What it is like to go to A&E during the coronavirus pandemic

Thankfully, I can count on one hand the amount of times I have needed to visit A&E for myself as an adult. But, as bad luck would have it, one of those times recently came in the midst of a global pandemic.

Concerned that I was experiencing a recurrence of something that had required hospital treatment as a child, I called 111 for advice and headed to the A&E Department of Sheffield‘s Northern General Hospital.

By the time I arrived, with my tired partner in tow who had given me a lift, it was 1am on a Friday and I was relieved to see that the waiting room was largely empty.

My partner anticipated that he would not be allowed in with me, so he hung back as I was beckoned to the counter and triaged by the kind and friendly woman who was on the desk that evening.

As I think is normal for anyone who visits A&E without a limb hanging off or any other obvious injury, I suddenly felt quite daft for being there at all – but she nodded understandingly when I explained what was wrong and reassured me that my concern was valid.

She then went through the usual processes – name, DOB, next of kin – and laughed warmly in the direction of my partner when I revealed that, yes, he had indeed given me a lift that night.

“He’s not allowed in with you I’m afraid, but he’s welcome to wait in the car”, she said – I can’t say that I wasn’t a bit disappointed, but I understood and waved goodbye to him as he left.

Next, I was handed a mask and asked to put that on before taking a seat in the waiting room – at this point, I would say there were probably around five people already there.

Social distancing stickers were on all seats
(Image: Phoebe Fuller)

Social distancing

As expected, social distancing stickers had been placed on the chairs in the waiting room which stopped anyone from sitting next to or behind another person.

I chose a seat towards the back of the room and settled in for what I expected to be a very long wait.

Now I’m not sure how ‘normal’ this is, given my lack of serious experience with A&E waiting rooms, but could coronavirus have made people more friendly? It certainly seemed that way.

Two women of different ages struck up a conversation from across the room about their choice in books and it wasn’t long before they were joined by a man wearing high-vis gear who – I overheard – had badly damaged his hand on a fence.

He didn’t seem particularly interested in chatting about books and the conversation moved on to other topics.

These three people, who I could gather came from different parts of the city – with different jobs, backgrounds and interests – quickly became thick as thieves, with a genuine, fleeting friendship forged in a hospital waiting room.

The ‘usual’ suspects

I have a number of close friends who work in hospitals and am told that the “usual suspects” on an evening are people who are under the influence of something or other and, sometimes, are abusive to staff.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic had done little to scare them off and there were a couple of people who fitted this description in the waiting room while I was there.

One of these, a man that looked to be in his late 20s, had been sat quietly on the floor for the first few hours that I was there but then flew into a rage when he was denied a cup of tea.

The woman who had triaged me was subjected to a barrage of vicious abuse, being called a “b***h” and “c**t” because she had apparently “never done a hard day’s work in her life”.

I was thoroughly impressed by her composure and it was very obvious that this did not phase her as, sadly, I got the impression she was more than used to dealing with instances like this.

He came back to the waiting room a while later and this time insisted that one of the nurses was “a s**t” because she was making a woman walk home from the hospital – this was not true, of course.

“Don’t you come in here and call me a s**t”, she said – marching straight over to him and asking him why he was being so abusive.

This directness seemed to knock him sideways, as he stared in stunned silence at the confident woman standing before him. At this point, I could honestly have given her a standing ovation.

All in a night’s work

In amongst these observations, I was of course also seen by the doctors and nurses working that evening and must say that I was impressed at the speed with which I was seen.

Having arrived at 1am, I was seen an hour later by the triage nurse who then sent me back to the waiting room so that I could be called forward again when a nurse was available to give a final check.

Though it is a time of high stress for our NHS workers, I was treated with nothing but patience and kindness all night, and was made to feel welcome and reassured.

So, while this pandemic may well have stretched our health service thin in so many areas, one area that has been left well alone is the compassion and hard work of our NHS staff.

Truly, I cannot thank them enough.


Yorkshire Live – Health