Today, 5th July 2018, marks seventy years of the NHS. Happy birthday, my old pal.
I was a poorly child who outgrew her sickliness to become a robustly healthy adult (crosses fingers). Whenever I sit opposite a doctor these days, I can almost see the wave of faint relief washing over them. Your last major medical event was in, let me see… they say, frowning as they scroll and scroll and scroll. 1996?
There was a heart murmur that needed further investigation: I harbour nebulous recollections of dark rooms, the sudden, lightning flash of the X-ray scanner, a tangle of primary-coloured wires, a nurse handing me a red lollipop in the corridor, bending down to bid me cheerfully: don’t worry, dear, it’s a good heart, not a bad one!
There was the childhood kidney infection that required an ultrasound. A sprained ankle that necessitated an X-ray. The sore throat that demanded penicillin. The ordinary illnesses of childhood. There was round after round of vaccinations – the bowl of sugar lumps sitting in a bowl on the table of our family doctor’s office, the needle waiting at the end of the line of children that looped the school corridors on the afternoon of our meningitis C jabs. There were the clouds of Snellen charts unfurled in the school dining hall by visiting optometrists, another uniformed line bending around the block and back. Afterwards there were always chocolate biscuits in abundance.
When I contracted a rare childhood illness at the age of five, characterised by short-term arthritis and large, mauve rashes colonising my limbs, the NHS was there for me. It accompanied me along fluorescent corridors and through scanning machines. It provided a wheelchair, follow-up blood tests in bright rooms for months afterwards. I remember little of the day I was rushed to hospital after school – the doctors told my parents it could be a leukaemia – bar a nurse handing me one of those woollen, military-grade blankets common to public institutions, under the strip lighting of a children’s ward. Later, when the (far less malign) cause of my purpura was uncovered, I remember a bed at the end of a ward, overlooking the window. I remember waking to a set of grandparents at my bedside, promising with reassuring certainty that one does not forget how to ride a bike. The duty nurse was the mother of a classmate, who took care to wake me as gently as possible throughout the night to take my temperature.
The NHS has been there for me when I’ve needed it. Over the years it has given me orthodontic braces and immunisations. X-rays and ultrasounds. It’s given me on many an occasion that obtrusively pink cough syrup that seems to exist only in the time warp of childhood; a plait of stitches along the inside of my left thumb, now a near-invisible seam thanks to the precision of the nurse who sewed it back together past midnight one October. The NHS has given me peace of mind when I needed it. Last year, it gave my grandfather a pacemaker. In fact, it birthed me. If you’re British, it probably birthed you too. For the most part, it’s (gratefully) been on hand to tell me I’m going to be just fine.
My grandfather speaks movingly about the era before the NHS. A fall from a bicycle led to a young leg skewered by wheel spokes. His friends carried him home on their shoulders. A doctor was called to the house. There, on the kitchen table, without anaesthetic, his leg was scraped out and stitched up, pooling blood wiped off the floor by his mother. He shudders each time he retells this familiar story, fingers tracing the silvery scar up his ankle. Thank goodness for the NHS, we nod and smile and count our blessings.
By ‘the NHS’ I mean, of course, its people, without whom it would not function; without whom, its current beleaguered and imperfect state would be far more critical. The doctors and nurses and porters and cleaners and receptionists and paper-pushers and trainees and registrars who make the NHS go round. The generosity of its staff is as staggering as the ambition of Nye Bevan’s vision.
Last winter, shortly after returning to inclement Britain after several months in Asia (for which the NHS, by the way, gifted me the going-away present of a free typhoid vaccination), my skin and bones started to malfunction, as if incorrectly programmed by a dodgy electrician. Everything – knees, shoulders, spine, feet – ached, and the skin on my face erupted into angry hives on a near weekly basis.
I attempted to ignore it, almost certain I was experiencing an allergic reaction to something or other (Britain itself, perhaps? Brexit?). The final straw was an outbreak of strawberry-coloured welts across my cheekbones so unbearably itchy that I booked an appointment immediately. Come morning I was sat across from a soft-spoken, thoughtful GP, asking what I’d eaten and where I’d travelled, ever so gently palpating the rash on my forehead.
I’m sorry for coming about something so trivial, I shrugged, embarrassed in the way the British so often are about making a fuss. The doctor leaned towards me and looked straight into my eyes as she said firmly, You don’t ever need to apologise for coming to see us.
I’ve long known I feel things deeply, and that assertion – its generosity, its absoluteness – gave me a lump in my throat. Because that, surely, is the sacred truth at the heart of the National Health Service, in spite of its many and multiplying problems. In spite of the current government’s attempts at privatisation, in spite of the cheerless headlines, in spite of the black hole we are told is at the heart of its book-keeping? The fact that a doctor goes out of her way to tell you, come to us, whenever you need?
That is my NHS. Your NHS. Our NHS. An NHS worth marching for and celebrating. So, happy 70th, NHS. My birthday wish for you is that we all remember just how much you are worth fighting for. You are the very best of Britain.