“I want people to know that you can survive”
John Morgan was helped through a long hospital stay by friends, healthcare professionals and his wife’s love, hears Sarah Brealey.
A long spell in hospital is difficult for both the patient and their loved ones, something that John Morgan and his family have experienced at first hand.
John, 67, a retired banking manager, went into hospital in November 2013 for elective heart valve surgery and an aortic root replacement. This is straightforward surgery in the vast majority of cases, and John expected to return home within 10 to 14 days.
However, John contracted an infection while he was in hospital (see box below). This resulted in a long period, mostly in intensive care, recovering from mediastinitis (infection of the central part of the chest, including the heart, major blood vessels, windpipe and oesophagus).
John’s wife, Janice, visited him most days for almost three months, walking for 15 minutes to the local station, before making the hour-long journey to hospital by train and bus. “I couldn’t just sit at home,” she says. “I wanted to be with him, otherwise I’d only have been worrying about him.”
Hospital-acquired infections, also called healthcare-acquired infections (HCAIs), cover a wide range of infections. Figures released by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in 2012 showed 6.4 per cent of hospital patients in England acquired an infection.
Newborns and the elderly are most vulnerable, especially those undergoing surgery or with catheters or cannulas inserted.
Not all infections have serious consequences (John’s case is rare). Often, infections can be treated with antibiotics. Rates of two of the best-known infections, MRSA and Clostridium difficile, have fallen significantly since 2006.
Janice firmly believes John’s strength of spirit, together with support from healthcare professionals, helped him to recover. She says: “He was full of tenacity and was determined to get better. The physios were brilliant, too.”
This experience has made me realise not to take things for granted. I’ve found inner strength in myself
He needed help with his breathing and to regain movement. John says: “They started by getting me to sit up and sit on the edge of the bed, then later to stand up, followed by me being able to manage walking across the unit, though only with a Zimmer frame and great difficulty. ”
John also had to learn to talk and eat again. He had been diagnosed as being unable to swallow on his third day in hospital and had to have a tube inserted so he could be fed through his nose.
Because John couldn’t breathe unaided, he spent time on a ventilator and later needed a tracheostomy, where a tube is inserted through the front of the windpipe. He says this made it “well-nigh impossible” to speak.
John couldn’t write things down because his hands were shaky but says he managed to communicate with the nurses through signals and gestures. He says: “They used a voice box to help me speak, but it would only be on for about an hour a day, usually when Janice was with me.”
“I could understand him by piecing together odd intelligible words, but no one else could,” says Janice. “I had to be his interpreter.”
Although John’s post-operation complications made his recovery difficult, his advice to other patients is that regular communication with the people looking after you is vital.
“Your medical team won’t know how you feel unless you tell them,” he says. “Remember, they want the same outcome as you – that is, to see you walk out of hospital a new person, restored to the best possible health.”
Recovering his ability to speak and eat was a long process. John received speech therapy in hospital for about an hour a day and had fortnightly home visits after he left. He also did prescribed exercises every day.
Once his NHS speech therapy finished, John sought private therapy and is still making progress. He feels his speech is now “about 80 per cent of where it was before going into hospital”. He also taught himself to eat again, but he is still careful with certain foods.
Help and support
Even when things go wrong, it doesn’t have to be the end of the line
Going through so much has been difficult emotionally for John, but he says he’s beginning to feel more optimistic.
“We have the diversion of our son and daughter-in-law, plus our four grandsons, who, together with some very good friends, have helped us a great deal and for which we’re eternally grateful.”
Attending exercise classes at his local heart support group, Take Heart, has been helpful too. “It’s good to talk with other people and exercise has definitely helped in my recovery,” John says.
Janice adds: “This experience has made me realise not to take things for granted. I’ve found inner strength in myself – and it has made John and I much more tolerant of each other and closer in consequence.” Her advice to others is not to be afraid to ask family and friends for support. “To anyone in a similar situation: don’t give up hope and ensure you’re fully involved in tending to your loved one.”
John’s closing words are of hope. “I want people to know that you can survive,” he says. “Even when things go wrong, it doesn’t have to be the end of the line.”
Coping with a hospital stay
Keep in touch: Try to stay in contact with family and friends.
Talk to other patients: If you’ve been in hospital longer than them, they may appreciate a chat from someone who knows the ropes.
Connect online: Many hospitals now have wi-fi (free in some places, for a fee in others), so if you use the internet, you can use this to stay connected with family and friends, even if they are far away. You can connect with other patients on our online community.
Use a chaplain service: Most hospitals have a chaplain, available for all faiths and none. Ask ward staff if you want to use this service.