If NHS treatment cost money, I really would be struggling for basics by now. For the first forty-five years of my life I visited hospitals as a patient only for D and Cs after miscarriages, and to apply for a wig or be given a steroid cream in my early months with alopecia. I considered myself healthy and almost never took a day off from teaching because I was too passionately committed to give in to bugs and colds. Then things changed, and my digestive system began to pay me back for all those years when, emotionally, there was just no time to eat regularly or sensibly, or visit the smallest room in the school or house. I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I know how fortunate I am. I’m not disabled or suffering from a life-threatening illness; I remain active. But in the last ten years I’ve had five operations, four of them bowel-related; my one major procedure involved chopping and reconnecting. In addition there have been at least fifteen investigations of various kinds, many of them ending in ‘scopy’ and some of them too gruesome and humiliating to recall without a shudder. That’s setting aside two excisions for a malignant melanoma on my arm.
The points I want to make with this history are firstly that I’m deeply grateful for a health service free at point of care, and secondly that I’ve been the recipient not just of great expertise but of enormous kindness. Almost without exception, all these hospital experiences have been easier to manage, even when I’ve cried with the pain or the sheer loss of dignity, because those professionals taking care of me really did care, with smiles and sympathetic concern, warmth and friendliness and genuine humanity. Yes, I’ve seen how understaffed departments can be and how stretched doctors and nurses often are. I’ve had the frustration of cancelled operations and I’ve waited a long time for a buzzer to bring me a nurse. Mistakes can happen. But I have nothing but respect for those who work so hard, shouldering responsibilities that would terrify me, enduring the interference of politicians, administrative restructuring and a lack of resources as well as people – because however low their morale or raw their anger, the vast majority of those I have encountered have taken time to support me psychologically as well as medically. To be real.
A third point stems from comments by Michael Gove recently that people who don’t use services shouldn’t have to pay for them. It seems to me that in an enlightened society no one should pay for education or for health care. I could feel guilty about costing the NHS or tax payer so much money, but then my mother, at almost ninety, has made up for my neediness with exemplary good health, such rare visits to her G.P. that the practice called a while ago to invite her in, no prescriptions at all bar one for ointment when a toe became infected, and one experience of being admitted into hospital for a cyst that turned out to be benign. She doesn’t even have Paracetemol in the house. That’s the way it works. That’s diversity – even though Mum and I share the same values as well as genes.
We all pay our taxes and give to charity because we recognise that for some of us, the ride we find ourselves taking is smooth, and that others get jolted, bruised and injured. I remember being shocked once by a colleague who said smokers shouldn’t get free health care. Drinkers too, I presume, and drug users, and those who choose junk food, and people like me who worked too hard and fast for too long? Our shared humanity dictates otherwise in the hands of health professionals who don’t discriminate. As a Quaker I am sometimes challenged but deeply inspired by the idea of seeing God in everyone – or, if you’re not religious, goodness or light. It’s an idea lived out in our NHS, and it’s fundamental, underpinning what these professionals do. We are all, victims or perpetrators, equal in our hospital beds.
So let’s save our NHS from the profit motive that can dehumanise business. Let’s value those we turn to when we feel small, desperate and afraid. And let’s hold together as one species. After all in an X-ray there’s no difference between the company director and the cleaner. If society as a whole modelled itself on the principles of the NHS, inequality and all its many destructive consequences for that society would be reduced – which would dramatically improve the physical and mental health of the nation.
I have more surgery tomorrow but it’s minor, but I’m not brave with pain and anticipation is focusing me. I’m told by someone who had the same op that it’s excruciatingly painful for a few days – and that everyone at the hospital was wonderfully kind. I’ll finish with some reflections after my major op in December 2014, an experience memorable in many ways.
Ten Things I Learned In Hospital
1. Doctors and nurses are heroic individuals, and their care, at its gentlest and brightest, warmest and most freely given, is the most precious gift you’ll ever receive because…
2. Until you have surgery you have no idea how vulnerable and needy you can be.
3. The intense, medicated pain is so overwhelming that it separates you from the active self you normally show the world and leaves you helpless in the power of your dysfunctional body.
4. Sleep has a new kind of shapeshift identity. Both longed-for and dreaded, it’s a tease, a fearful risk, an unreachable goal.
5. Time has no meaning and night has no darkness. Your body is your only clock.
6. Talking behind curtains from our beds, we all sound the same. Clues like accents and the dynamics of age are smudged into the faint blur that’s the voice of pain and need.
7. But the courage of other patients worse off than you is palpable and moving and you feel a bond you’re all too weak to express.
8. A mobile phone is as helpful as morphine.
9. When the staff on a ward operate as a positive, supportive team no politicians can stop them doing God’s work and no words can express your gratitude.
10. Surgery is a bigger, more traumatic and more enlightening experience than imagination can foresee and once you’re home it will leave you crying at the first robin, rose or Strictly Rumba you see.