Gentle Mary and the woman who put on the bravest face
Leo Varadkar refused a challenge to do a full shift in A&E. Niamh Horan did it for him and her report will make shocking reading for the new Health Minister
They say, rich or poor, illness is the great leveller. 'They' have not recently spent the night in one of Ireland's busiest public hospitals.
Much like our new Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who was challenged by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation to work a 12-hour shift in an A&E.
"What could he possibly learn?," was the unspoken message.
Well, for a start, he might have met someone like Mary.
Her face and small frame are lost beneath the folds of a soft, green, over-sized jacket that envelops her as she waits patiently to be seen by a doctor.
Mary is 80.
And she has been sitting on a plastic chair for almost nine hours when I meet her at the Accident and Emergency unit in the Mater Hospital in Dublin on Friday night.
Her grand-daughter is with her and has a word with one of the nurses who belts through the door every so often to tend to patients.
"What did she say?" Mary whispers to her grand-child once they have finished talking.
"She says there's four more ahead of you nanny."
"Jesus," the old woman sighs, her voice breaking.
She's been in pain since early this morning, she has two jackets on for the cold and she's scared.
But Mary will have to wait because she's just a number. One of 84 to be precise.
"The people who really need to be seen are brought in first," she whispers in my ear, trying to explain it all to me. It's an accurate and succinct explanation of the triage system at work.
But for Mary it is like she's spent her whole life, knowing her place, learning to wait her turn.
What no one tells Mary is what exactly defines 'an emergency'.
Shortly before that a man presented with an adverse reaction to drugs. He was tended to and discharged within two hours and was now in front of us working the room for money. He swears it is for the bus fare home. No one believes him.
A few minutes later another woman comes through the door accompanied by a man.
She's in her sixties, well dressed and looks like anyone's mother, I suppose.
Except that one half of her face is completely black and blue.
The phrase "cuts and contusions" doesn't come near the damage to her pretty face.
She sits down, head bowed, and the man takes a seat beside her.
Her right eye is so severely bruised and swollen she can barely see out of the blood-filled slit.
People steal glances to survey her injuries
"Are you okay?" I ask.
"Yes, I fell down a step," she tells me.
"Yes, it was concrete and I scraped myself off the wall at the same time."
"I'm honestly okay," she says "it looks worse than it is."
They are taken away soon afterwards so she can be examined.
Mary, my gentle new friend, is eventually seen after a 12-hour wait and we're told she is being kept in overnight.
You see, that's the thing about public A&E wards.
After a while it becomes like a little community. Patients start to look after each other, keeping upbeat and abreast of each other's conditions.
When you're stuck in a place like this, it's amazing what a bit of tenderness will do for the human spirit.
A young prisoner called John rattles his handcuffs as he gets comfortable beside three burly-looking officers.
He doesn't speak for hours but is suddenly stirred when the woman with the badly bruised face walks by.
Nearby another woman paces the floor to try and walk off the pain of an injured arm.
She has been like that for over four hours.
And she is seven months' pregnant.
Beside her is a man who has been waiting with his teenage daughter since 1.30pm. It's now approaching 3.30am and she's doubled over with stomach pain.
Another woman enduring the same wait has pains shooting down her right arm. She is afraid they could be the sign of a stroke or a heart attack.
"Promise me you won't go home," the nurse pleads with her, apologising for the delay. "Too many make that mistake."
These types of cases are thrown into the same queue as patients such as the young woman who is on the phone shouting about some girl who "hopped on me for nothing".
All we can make out as she paces up and down, covering her arms with hand sanitiser, is that one of the men she fought is HIV positive, she believes.
A security guard has seen it all before. It's not unusual for him to be punched on the job. A couple of feet away, a drunk, his face covered in blood, is roaring because the coffee machine has eaten his one euro coin.
"If this was a bleedin' restaurant this wouldn't happen," he shouts at the security guard, to stifled laughs.
I chat with another young woman.
And in that single exchange I resolve never to give up private health insurance.
Me: "What are you in for?"
Her: "I have an infection in me leg," (proceeds to lift her leg up on the chair to show me the problem)
Me: "Did you fall?"
Her: "No. It got infected and I'm a c**t for the pickin'."
I make a visit to the toilet but stop in my tracks when I see that the HSE thinks dangerous bugs like MRSA only work the same hours as its cleaners.
The gardai have now been called because several junkies have taken over the other toilets.
Vomit covers the floor and the junkies' pyjamas. They have taken to spraying over the fresh stains with deodorant.
Two well-spoken English guys look on disgusted.
It seems there's a lot of junkies and revellers in here blocking the system. So staff have little time to deal with gentle, 80-year-old Mary or the suspected stroke victim or the injured pregnant lady.
Or even the woman who fell down the step - who put on the bravest face of all.