The drinking and violence that is a way of life for many young Britons reaches a Christmas climax on Black Eye Friday
Half-past three in the morning, and a snowy -2C outside, but at Newcastle General’s Accident and Emergency department the drunks still keep coming. Some are delivered unconscious on stretchers by exasperated ambulance crews; others stumble in, smeared in blood, and make angry demands before being restrained by security.
In front of reception, a row of blue wheelchairs each holds a collapsed drinker waiting to be seen – or to sober up – while, from the corridor, a chorus of snores erupts from the long line of inanimate, intoxicated bodies.
One of these men broke and dislocated his ankle so badly he needed emergency treatment; yet, despite being put in an ambulance and taken to hospital, having his fractured leg X-rayed, put back together and plastered – without any painkillers – the dark-haired 20-something has yet to wake up and realise he’s hurt.
The poky waiting room is littered with bloody tissues, sandwich wrappers and cardboard sick bowls. There are so many patients – most ‘suffering’ from excessive inebriation or gashes and bruises from drink-induced brawls – that some sit on the floor or wander the corridors.
For despite the Arctic conditions, Britain’s binge drinkers are out in force tonight, on what is known by Northerners as Black Eye Friday: the last Friday before Christmas, when factories and offices close for the festive break, meaning employees finish early and spend the afternoon drinking, celebrating and, as the name implies, fighting.
The result, as I discovered when I spent the night in Newcastle’s main A&E ward observing the busiest time of the year for frontline medical staff in British hospitals, are scenes so grotesque and disturbing that they left me wondering quite what kind of country Britain has become.
Estimates put the number of casualty admissions which are alcohol related at 70 per cent on a normal Friday and Saturday night.
Over Christmas, the situation only intensifies as festive parties kick off and drinking levels soar. The weary, wary staff at Newcastle General know they can’t afford to take chances.
‘We line them up in wheelchairs in reception so we can keep a constant eye on them,’ explains nurse Stephanie Wright, 30. ‘They need a lot of looking after, as they might choke on their own vomit – or turn violent.’
Also keeping a close eye on proceedings are four police officers – batons ready – paid for by the NHS to keep the situation under control when needed. Which is regularly.
‘Drunks create a lot of problems,’ says one officer. ‘But then wherever you are it’s usually drunks causing trouble. Nothing abnormal about that.’
Thankfully, staff seem impervious to just how depressing the situation is.
The first alcohol-related admission is announced at 7pm by a stench of booze flooding the reception area. Enter Peter, a dark-haired 30-year-old who staggers in supported by two ambulance crew. He is wearing a white polo shirt, dark blue jeans and a vast quantity of his own blood, which covers his hair, hands, face and jacket.
‘I’ve been assaulted,’ he murmurs bleakly, though nurses suspect he may just have fallen over.
Ten minutes later, Ben, an unconscious, greying 40-something found collapsed in a doorway, forms the first of the wheelchair row.
He is soon joined by a student in a black hoody whose drooping head bobs from side-to- side over his chest. He is convulsing and claims to have had his drink spiked. As does every person brought in tonight for over-intoxication.
A concerned girlfriend stands rubbing his shoulders soothingly – though doubtless he doesn’t deserve the comfort, and won’t remember it.
But then few people here will probably remember tonight – except for the irritated sober patients and rankled doctors.
By 8pm, police have already been required to remove a very obese, very drunk brunette. Officers roll her out in her wheelchair – screaming and squealing – and park her between the two automatic exit doors, presumably to protect others from her incessant noise, though it’s still audible at reception.
A further two alcohol casualties come in at ten – Paul, 34, who fell down the stairs in a pub, and a blonde college student in leggings and six-inch heels who has broken her wrist. How? ‘I flung it,’ she laughs, oblivious to the fracture’s severity. ‘I was drinking and I just flung it out and it broke.’
Too drunk to stand properly, the girl keeps tottering into the counter, banging her wrist against the wood and yelping in pain – then doing exactly the same thing again.
It is like something out of a gruesome comedy sketch. Only this isn’t a comedy show – this is a taxpayer-funded NHS department, designed to provide high-level care for urgently ill patients.
Dr Jim Connelly, 45, consultant in emergency medicine and in charge of A&E this weekend, was supposed to go home at 8pm – but is still here at 10.30pm.
‘At weekends there are lots of alcohol-related incidents – violence, accidents and general intoxication,’ he explains. ‘We put extra resources on, but it’s difficult to predict and we only have limited budgets and staff.’
Does he mind the drunks? ‘Mind is not the word – it’s part of our role and we have a duty of care. But as a society we have to look at our relationship with alcohol. With Christmas parties tonight, there’s a pressure to drink to excess.
‘Back at reception the hoody-clad student is throwing up into a cardboard bowl and a blond teenager who has lost two teeth in a fight sits holding his face in his bloody hands, leaving bright red fingerprints across his cheeks.
The level of violence is astounding. Over the next few hours, injured men arrive every ten minutes, covered in blood-soaked bandages or clutching their bruised, bulging faces.
One has a black eye so round and dark he looks like a cartoon character; another has a stab wound in his back. All incurred while supposedly celebrating Christmas.
Most of the injured are not innocent victims but so drunk they’ve aggravated other people or started fights. Others have injured themselves falling over.
Richard, 16, in a blue stripey jumper and thick gold chain, tripped and split his head – and it’s not hard to see how: he rebounds from wall-towall of the corridor as he zigzags towards the waiting room.
His mum soon arrives to take him home. ‘He’s been drinking and is getting ratty,’ she says, as if he’s nothing more than a naughty toddler.
Incredibly, when I mention how busy things are, seasoned staff correct me. ‘This is the norm,’ says one ambulance worker.
And triage nurse Helen Bowman, 30, agrees: ‘So far, this is just a typical Friday night – full of drunk people, not ill people. It’s no worse than usual, but it’ll get busier.’
Astonishingly, it does. By 12.30am, the stream of trampled, bloody faces, alcoholics and unconscious men and women is so heavy I can’t keep track – two girls who fell over and smashed the back of their heads, a 30-year-old web designer who sliced her wrist when she broke her wine glass, a tall ginger-bearded man who’s been glassed, two more paralytic women in ambulances and a blond rugby player who looks like he could have been quite handsome, before his face was flattened by a violent drunken fight which has left him looking hideous.
One ambulance crew announces brightly, ‘two for the price of one’ and brings in a girl who’s been assaulted, and a barmaid who was hit over the head with a barstool when she tried to intervene. The latter is visibly shocked, with nausea and blurred vision, and is the first sober admission I’ve seen in an hour.
At the same time, Sue, 34, a pretty woman smartly attired in a blue dress who has also been drinking, wanders by with a bandage on her face – she has been glassed on the chin by a stranger.
‘I can’t believe it – I was on a Christmas night out with my boyfriend and now look at me,’ she says. ‘These girls kept spilling their drinks on us, so I asked them to stop – then one of them smashed a pint glass into my face.’
Little wonder that the expected waiting time to see a doctor has now risen to six hours due to exceptional demand. Nurses are not being allowed breaks and a student nurse, who is there to observe and learn, has been asked to help on the floor.
Sadly, it is sober patients – such as a young man with a burn that has become infected – who give up and go because they don’t want to wait in such appalling company.
‘It is really difficult because everyone has to be treated,’ says nurse Helen. ‘But the last thing you want is someone really ill surrounded by all these drunk people.’
This issue is all too obvious when a young woman runs into reception, crying and screaming – in the way only a desperately worried mother can. Her newborn baby is in the resuscitation room. Thankfully, she is too upset to notice the surrounding mess, or the obscene version of Jingle Bells being sung in the waiting room.
There, a couple of rowdy groups have now converged. Five boys – one in a Santa hat – have already twice been threatened by police: first for fooling around in wheelchairs, knocking over patients, then for drinking bottles of cider in the toilets. Another couple are swearing profusely as they drop chips on the grubby floor.
The room now resembles a disorderly late-night kebab shop.
Registrar Ian Blain, 30 – the head doctor tonight – is acutely aware of the situation. ‘Having lots of alcoholrelated admissions completely changes the atmosphere,’ he says. ‘The waiting room is not a pleasant place at night, and it can be quite scary for the elderly.’
After training for six years to become a doctor, he admits dealing with drunks can be ‘very frustrating’. ‘Especially when you’re working with really sick patients then having to deal with people here just because they’ve been drinking. There are times when you think: “Why am I doing this?” But it’s part of the territory in Accident and Emergency – in Britain at least.
‘I’ve worked abroad and it’s much worse here. When junior doctors first start they are shocked, but you fast become immune to it.’ By 1am some of the wheelchair recruits – one of whom is hallucinating – have started to regain consciousness.
The grey-haired man, who was first to arrive six hours ago, gets up and tells the nurse: ‘I feel fine, I’ve no idea how I got here, but I’m going home’ – then bids a fond farewell to his new friends in the blue seats, yelling ‘God bless’ as they wave after him.
Ten minutes later, I am nearly knocked over when four girls march aggressively through the hospital, pushing staff and patients aside as they search for their friend. Finally, they approach reception and ask gruffly: ‘Where’s Nicola?’ The nurse asks what’s wrong with her. ‘She’s pissed,’ they yell, giggling.
They finally spot her, face down, being stretchered in by ambulance staff – so they stagger over to her, blocking the emergency entrance, laughing: ‘She’s been sick all over herself and passed out.’
All but one of the girls – seemingly the quietest – are ejected by police when they refuse to calm down.
James, 18, a student, is charming in comparison, despite his inability to speak, ripped, muddy clothes and strange startled expression. He is being treated by doctors in a side room for apparent concussion – although, as they discover, his problems are due entirely to too much cider.
Has he been in hospital before? ‘Yes.’ Was he injured then? ‘No, I just had too many Fosters.’
Back in reception, the stench of alcohol is overwhelming. Drunk people are everywhere – asleep on benches, slumped against the wall and collapsed on the floor.
Two women in wheelchairs are throwing up, another is hiccupping loudly. A mouthy teenager in a tracksuit is being thrown out by police. ‘This isn’t nursing, it’s babysitting,’ I overhear a nurse exclaim angrily. ‘It’s a disgrace.’
Porters lined up along the back window channel their disgust through acerbic remarks. ‘The smartest thing in the waiting room is the coffee machine,’ says one.
Meanwhile, a fragile-looking elderly patient is brought through on a trolley – I cannot tell whether her scared expression stems from her own worries or the hellish scene around her.
At 2am, Nicola’s supposedly quiet friend starts whining. ‘When can she go?’ she demands. ‘She has to catch a flight in two hours.’
In the corridor, unconsciousness has turned into sleep and four men are snoring like road drills.
No such rest for tired staff, though, as inebriated patients carry on coming in – at 3.30am, three more arrive simultaneously: a 53-year- old woman in heavy make-up who was found asleep on the Quayside; Matt, 40, strapped into a spinal collar after falling down the stairs; Mark, 19, a university student, wearing just socks and shorts, his bare back and chest covered in blood.
It is incredible that at 4am so many casualties still keep arriving. Yet surveying the muddy, bloody reception area, strewn with spilt drinks and used vomit bowls, the line of disgusting, drooling drunks, what is most incomprehensible is that this is Christmas – that this devastation is due to festive jubilation.
But then in modern Britain ‘celebrating’ means, to many people, just another excuse for unchecked binge drinking.
And for the highly skilled medical staff at hospitals throughout Britain, Christmas means fraught, difficult nights dealing with unnecessary carnage.
source: Mail Online