Packing for a visit to an accident and emergency unit has become a similar palaver to packing for a weekend away, or a long, arduous car journey. You don't want to take too much, but, as you never know what might happen, it's better to risk packing too much than too little.
When Jenny called and told me she was "bleeding a bit", 12 weeks into her pregnancy, and asked if I would come with her to hospital, the first thing I did was decide which book to take with me. Then we began running through a list: a bottle of water, sandwiches and crisps (you can't risk going to the canteen and losing your place in the queue), newspapers, magazines and anything that will take your mind off the sights and sounds around you - not to mention your own pain and worries.
We debated which hospital to patronise. Our local hospital has a bit of a reputation for grannies on trolleys, but we were in a panic and so we rushed there.
The waiting area was packed. As my friend clenched her abdomen and tried not to cry, a cool receptionist ran through the complex signing-in procedure: name, DoB, doctor's maiden name, address, medical history, car registration, O-levels . . . Then we were issued with a series of orders: "Go and sit down and wait," was clear enough. Then: "A nurse will see you when your name is called and then may refer you to a gynaecologist, who in turn may refer you to the X-ray department for a scan."
We saw the nurse within an hour, who duly recommended a check-up by the on-duty gynaecologist. Back in our seats, three huge mothers with six children gave the kiddies boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken to "shut them up". One of the babies needed changing, and the mum leant over her and cooed: "You're a little cow, what are you?" The baby giggled. "Yes," she resumed, "a little cow, that's right."
Suddenly, there was a rush of activity. Two police constables stalked through the waiting area and trolleys were bumped through swinging doors. Two homeless men were draped in blankets; blood poured from their head wounds and splashed the tiles.
Minutes later, this was mopped up lethargically by a woman who threw a kitchen towel on the floor and moved her foot around, leaving a red smear that the kids kept pointing at.
We had been waiting five hours to be seen by a doctor, any doctor. The one thing that kept my friend from screaming with fear and frustration was the information that there was only one gynaecologist on call and she was in surgery, delivering twins by Caesarean section to a mother who had been hit by a car. A cynical voice in the back of my head whispered: "I bet they say that to all the girls."
"How can I compete with that?" sighed my friend. At 6pm, we went home. Having had three miscarriages already, Jenny recognises the stages and knows that lying down calmly is probably better than sitting anxiously.
That was Saturday. On Monday at 11am, Jenny called me from outside the Royal Free Hospital. "I've just been seen by a nurse, who is sending me for a scan before I see a doctor. I'll know if the baby is alive!" There was one drawback - the "long wait" that the nurse had apologised profusely for.
"Yes," said Jenny breathlessly, "she said she was very sorry, but I would have to wait for . . ." I imagined the timescale, what would it be six, seven, eight hours? "Oh my god, get this . . . up to an hour, she said, for a scan!" We both laughed with shocked relief. By midday, she knew her baby had a heartbeat, was 12 weeks and three days old, and that there was no sign of any excess bleeding or damage that a bit of rest wouldn't cure.
We were delighted and grateful. But I wonder, are the families in the other hospital still waiting to be seen and are the homeless men still on trolleys in the corridor?