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'To me Emily was a small child but in medical eyes she was an adult'

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A month after I had driven my excited, healthy and independent 18 year old daughter Emily to start her first year at University I received a text from her saying she felt unwell.

Twenty-four hours later she was being treated for meningitis. This is a reflection on my experiences of the 3 weeks she spent as an 18 year old on an adult medical ward. The ward staff tried hard to meet her needs and she was allowed to use her mobile phone and laptop and to have visitors out of the usual time slots all of which I am sure contributed to her recovery. I was also allowed to stay on the ward during the day for which we were grateful.

I was acutely aware that I was being granted a favour in being allowed to stay on the ward all day so I went out of my way to be helpful and avoid making any unnecessary demands on staff. I endeavoured to be a ‘good’ relative and through this to somehow buy good care for my daughter. But this was an adult ward and Emily was an adult – therefore I had to leave her over night. I noticed myself striking an unspoken deal with the staff – I will do my best during my time on the ward to reduce your workload in return for you, the nurses and care staff, caring for my baby, my vulnerable 18 year old and keeping her safe overnight. To me Emily had become once again a small child and yet in medical eyes she was an adult.

When she was seriously ill Emily relinquished control of her life to the medics and undergoing invasive procedures was physically and psychologically painful for her. However as she improved many of the procedures she underwent were routine or foreseeable and some of these feeling of being out of control could perhaps have been reduced simply through warning her in advance of them being due. As it was she described how she lay in fear of staff suddenly appearing to inflict pain on her. This fear heightened her anxiety, increasing her perception of pain. She began to selectively report her symptoms and actively censor out any she worried may cause more investigations. I found myself needing to act as an interpreter of medical information and as her advocate as I would for a much younger child.

However she was not on a Children’s ward but was being nursed alongside elderly patients some of whom were palliative and some of whom were very confused. Being a young person Emily became an object of interest on the ward but having had such a close brush with death herself being cared for alongside very elderly, seriously ill patients was difficult for us both to deal with.

I could not help but speculate that our experiences were probably not unusual for a young adult suddenly finding themselves on an adult ward. I wonder whether this experience could be improved through small changes and welcome your expert comment.


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