Sleep. The great healer. The time when our bodies recharge and mend themselves. Without it we quickly feel poorly. Scientists have linked lack of sleep to, among other things, diabetes, obesity, and even speeding cancer growth. It is without doubt a great natural cure for our ailments and the reason our doctors, and our mothers, tell us to ‘Get a good night’s sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Why then does the NHS put so little value on it?
It’s a recognised fact among us patients that we won’t get much sleep in hospital. The staff from consultants to porters seem to recognise that too. The cause is generally put down to other patients, snoring, the crazy ones who shout all night, those who simply weep, loudly.
But as much as other patients do sometimes keep me awake, without doubt, it’s more often the hospital staff and procedures that leave me tossing and turning in frustration at 3am.
Let’s talk about last night. Lights off about 11pm. I’d shoved in my headphones to drown out the sound of the two elderly, confused ladies alternately crying for help and ranting at the poor care worker on shift. Then I’d managed to drop off to sleep. Until, at 11.58pm, I heard a voice. “Fiona. Sorry love but can you wake up? We need to move you to another ward. Can you get up and pack please? The porter will be here in a few minutes.” I travelled down some cold corridors, porter commiserating with me, (“It’s not bloody fair love, they shouldn’t move you at this time”), and probably woke everyone else on the new ward as I clumsily tried to unpack in the dark. I was not surprisingly then a tad unrelaxed and didn’t manage to get to sleep until about 4.30am. And of course they woke me at 6.30am to take my blood pressure.
Now if this was a rare occurrence I’d accept it as inevitable in a busy hospital that has to admit patients through A and E in the middle of the night. But in some wards, in some trusts, it seems to be an acceptable, common way of behaving. The night before last I’d been woken from my slumber by first one patient moving out at 2am and another moving on half an hour later.
And it’s not just the procedures but sometimes the staff themselves. There are those who seem to understand that it is in fact nighttime, who get on with the stuff they have to do but at a lower decibel level than they’d use during the day. But there are many who carry on as if it’s the middle of the afternoon, switching bright lights on, talking in hearty, loud voices, waking us all up to ask a patient a few questions which could perhaps wait a few hours until morning.
So, NHS, here’s what I propose. Let’s introduce sleep-protected time zones in the same way we have protected times for meals. A period between midnight and 7am when everyone talks in whispers, lights are dimmed and no-one should have to move beds. Of course there will be times when these rules will have to be broken for essential medical care. Most patients would recognise that. But if it’s not essential, let’s keep the ward quiet and dark so we can get a few hours uninterrupted kip. We’re ill for goodness sake. We need our sleep.