A FORMER nurse has called on decision makers to ramp up support for the beleaguered Welsh Ambulance Service, after her sister-in-law suffered a stroke at home and waited five hours for paramedics to arrive.

Ruth Hood said those delays meant her relative, 73-year-old Cheryl Hood, arrived at hospital outside the four-hour window in which vital clot-busting drugs can be given. She hopes that by highlighting her sister-in-law's plight, action will be taken to ensure other stroke victims are given faster treatment.

Cheryl, who is also a former nurse, suffered a "major" stroke and remains in hospital, where she is also being treated for pneumonia.

"Cheryl worked all her life in the NHS, and when it was her turn to need help, the NHS failed her," sister-in-law Ruth said, adding that while she "can't knock" the "excellent" quality of care provided by the paramedics and hospital staff, such systemic pressures were unacceptable.

Speaking to the Argus, the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust said current issues with response times were "a symptom" of wider pressures on health and social care, and has apologised to Cheryl and other patients who have had a "poor experience" with delays.

South Wales Argus:

The 73-year-old's relatives first rang 999 shortly after 9am on Monday, and despite further emergency calls pleading for an ambulance to arrive, it was five hours before help came. In that time, the callout was sometimes categorised as an 'amber' call and sometimes as the most-serious 'red' category, Ruth said. 

"I feel angry – we were both qualified nurses, but all I could do was make her comfortable," she added. "She was on the floor, cold, and the instructions were that we couldn't move her."

'Queues of ambulances outside hospital'

Once the ambulance arrived at her sister-in-law's home, the paramedics were "excellent", and that the staff at the Grange University Hospital, in Cwmbran, were also giving "the best" care, Ruth said.

But her frustrations about the response time were compounded by the sight of long queues of ambulances outside the Grange – both when she arrived at the hospital and when she left later that evening – containing patients who were waiting to be admitted to the accident and emergency department.

The responsibility for improvements should fall on Welsh Government politicians, who should appeal for more help from the armed forces to support the ambulance service, she added.

During the pandemic, soldiers have been brought in on several occasions to drive ambulances, as well as to help out at vaccination and testing centres.

"Five hours on a floor for a stroke victim is not acceptable," Ruth said of her sister-in-law's experience. "I want the health minister and Mark Drakeford to stand up and be accountable, because the NHS and the ambulance service are not functioning as they should be".

READ MORE: NHS waiting lists at record high amid ‘unsustainable’ pressure

To add insult to injury, later that day the family heard an NHS advert on the radio, warning people about the signs of stroke and urging them to call 999 immediately.

While Cheryl remains in hospital, her sister-in-law hopes the ambulance service can be better supported, to improve response times and get people to hospital in time for potentially life-saving treatment.

What did the Welsh Ambulance Service say?

The Argus contacted the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust regarding Cheryl's experience, and to find out about any wider pressures it may be facing.

Sonia Thompson, the Trust's assistant director of operations (Emergency Medical Service), said: “We were really sorry to hear about Mrs Hood’s experience – it’s absolutely not the service we want to provide.

“Delayed ambulance response times are a symptom of the pressures across the entire health and social care system.

“Issues being felt in other parts of NHS Wales, like delayed discharges which can hinder flow through hospitals and lengthen ambulance waits at the ‘front door’ of the emergency department, have a direct consequence for us because fewer ambulance[s] are available to respond to patients waiting in the community.

“Coupled with staff absence exacerbated by Covid-19, and a significantly higher volume of calls, our ability to get to patients quickly has been significantly hampered in recent months, and we’re sorry to all of those patients who have had a poor experience, of which Mrs Hood was one.

“We’re acutely aware of the impact this has on the patient’s experience which is why we’re taking steps to improve ambulance availability.

“Recently, this has meant re-enlisting the military to help bolster our capacity and put is in the best possible position to provide a safe service to people in Wales.

“We would invite Mrs Hood’s family to contact the Trust directly so that we can better understand their concerns and look into what happened.”

Health board: Staff shortages leading to longer waits for patients

We asked the Aneurin Bevan Health Board, which covers Gwent, about these wider system pressures at hospitals, and whether they were affecting the speed at which patients could be admitted to the Grange.

A spokesperson for the health board told us: “The Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide staff shortages continue to cause further significant strain on our services, as in other areas of Wales and the UK.

“Unfortunately, this has meant that patients are waiting longer to be transferred into the emergency department than we would want, as we maintain strict Covid-19 infection control measures whilst prioritising the most seriously unwell patients.

"When patients arrive at the [emergency department], they are initially assessed by a nurse and their care is prioritised according to the seriousness of their condition. All patients requiring life-saving treatment are brought straight into our resuscitation department without delay.

“We continue to work with our colleagues in the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust to ensure the timely transfer of patients into our care, and to release ambulance crews as efficiently as possible to enable them to respond to emergency calls in our communities.

“We would remind patients that calling 999 or visiting The Grange University Hospital’s emergency department should be for life-threatening, emergency care only. We would encourage those that are not seriously ill to consider the other options available to them and to call 111 if they are unsure where to go, so that we can provide life-saving care to those who really need it.”

Welsh Government: 'Significant challenges' due to pandemic

Finally, we put Ruth Hood's comments, and her calls for extra support for the ambulance service, to the Welsh Government.

In response, a government spokesperson said: “The Welsh Ambulance Service, like all NHS services across the UK, is working hard to respond to the ongoing and significant challenges as a result of the pandemic.

“There is an active delivery plan in place to help manage 999 demand in the community, increase capacity, improve responsiveness and improve ambulance patient handover.

“We recently launched a new national programme to improve the flow of patients through the hospital system and return home when they’re ready to do so, alongside £25m in recurrent funding.

“Last month we provided an extra £42m for social care, which will also help to free up hospital beds.”