The other day, one of the lovely nurses appeared at my door to ask whether I wanted a cup of tea, or coffee, or anything else. Always – and usually unnecessarily – reluctant to put someone else out, I scrunched up my face so it would say ‘I’m really sorry to ask this’ and requested whether the nurse might possibly be able to think about maybe perhaps making me a milky hot chocolate (rather tasty on the Ruth Myles Unit, unlike of course the water-based imitation).
The nurse told me I didn’t need to scrunch up my face or be so polite: it is her job to look after me while I’m on the ward, and delivering hot (or cold) drinks – or whatever else I may need, within reason – while I’m stuck in my room unable to get anything myself is very much part of that job.
It struck me at that moment how lucky I am to have not just fantastic specialist haematologists doing everything they can to help me combat the leukaemia, but also a wonderful team of nurses, healthcare assistants, etc to look after me 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the ward. Not for the first time, I considered what a magnificent beast the NHS is.
When I was at Goldsmiths, studying for my Journalism MA, it seemed natural to volunteer to cover the health beat for the local newspaper – the Gold Standard – we were putting together as part of the course, having recently come out of hospital myself. At the time (and ever since), there were big arguments about the closure of some NHS services in the Lewisham area, so it was an interesting beat to cover, though I was never a great reporter. A screamingly un-objective headline of “DON’T MESS WITH THE NHS” following an anti-cuts demonstration in Trafalgar Square showed quite clearly where my sympathies lay.
Later in the course, when we’d moved on to magazines, I wrote a birthday eulogy to the NHS (“SIXTY YEARS OF THE NHS” – I’m not sure why all my headlines ended up in capitals) for Alert, the teenage news magazine I was part of putting together with some excellent colleagues. In the article, I explained all the benefits of free healthcare, ending with a proclamation: “The NHS revolutionised healthcare – and 60 years on, it’s worth considering what life would be without it.”
The other times I’ve found myself defending the NHS have generally been when Mariacristina’s been frustrated at delays in moving through the system after seeing a GP about some ailment. Having had more access to private doctors when in Italy, Mariacristina sometimes finds it tough when a doctor doesn’t agree to all the tests she thinks she or I need, or when we’re sent away with a prescription for painkillers and instructions to come back in a month or so if things haven’t sorted themselves out.
And I agree – the NHS isn’t perfect, as anyone who follows the news in any depth at all will know. I always get the feeling that a private doctor, though, is far more likely to agree to the tests you think you need – whether it’s the next logical step or not – as s/he’ll be benefiting from keeping you in their paid system. And it’s expensive, anyway, of course. An NHS doctor may need to put you through a number of other, simpler checks before reaching that point, because if everybody coming into a GP surgery was sent immediately for tests covering all the possibilities their symptoms might suggest, the system would be immediately overwhelmed, and collapse.
So I understand that GPs need to prioritise time and treatment, and I know from personal experience how frustrating this can be. When I was meant to have surgery on my right elbow to remove some loose fragments and enable me to straighten it again, it was only after many months of ultrasound (I think that’s what it was) and then physiotherapy to try to loosen the arm up had failed; when I finally saw the specialist, he knew almost immediately what was wrong – osteochondritis dissecans, in case you were wondering.
I don’t begrudge the GP or the NHS generally for that wait, however, as the problem was not a priority compared to, say, leukaemia. When it comes to serious issues, at least in my case, the response has been rapid and unfettered. This time around, I waited a few days to come into hospital, and didn’t start treatment for another few days, but it wasn’t vital that I come in and start treatment any sooner, given that I was in no immediate danger and my blood counts were only moving slowly.
I should at this point say that a private doctor may have played an important part in helping me survive the first round of leukaemia. After my GP had identified something was wrong with my blood, she asked whether I had medical insurance. Having finished university that year, I was still – just – eligible for my father’s BUPA cover, so I went to a private haematologist, who sent me straight to hospital to get treated. It’s impossible to know how long a wait I would have had for an NHS specialist (though I’d like to think by that point it was clear something was seriously wrong and I’d have been prioritised), or whether it would have made any difference to my chances of survival, but I was grateful at that point to be able to see someone as soon as possible.
This time around, having been under Dr Willis’s watch here at St George’s since my last treatment, the signs were spotted early and I was brought in when it was confirmed the leukaemia had returned. The NHS may frustrate, and sometimes the politics obscures the phenomenal amount of good it does, but I strongly believe that when it comes to the crunch, Nye Bevan’s baby delivers. The inescapable phenomenon of human error means mistakes are made, but for me the successful treatment or care of such a vast range and number of people is incredible. A system that provides such healthcare for everyone, whatever your financial situation, must be applauded.
So thank you, taxpayers! I hope you don’t begrudge me the occasional hot chocolate, or the wages of the nurse who delivers it. If it’s any consolation, my taxes have contributed, too…
But above all, it’s part of my battle to stay sane and beat leukaemia, and I raise my cap to the NHS for giving me the best possible chance of winning. God bless the NHS!