Thank you… for saving my wife and baby: Mark Haddon, author
It was the summer of 2003, and my wife Sos and I were on holiday in the Black Mountains near Hay-on-Wye. Sos was six months pregnant. One afternoon we went out cycling, leaving our three-year-old son with a friend. We’d done a circuit of the Olchon valley and were heading back towards Llanveynoe, on the tiny road that twists and turns along the side of Little Black Hill. Sos was riding 50m ahead of me. Because the hedges are high and dense, I couldn’t see her until I turned a corner, and found her lying in the middle of the road in front of a 4×4. She was only half-conscious, and she was coughing blood. She said that she was in a lot of pain, and asked me to turn her over. I turned her over. I still feel slightly sick when I remember how stupid that was. I knelt on the road, held her hand and reassured her that everything was going to be all right; but I assumed I was watching the person I loved most in the whole world die in front of me.
I don’t remember who ran to the nearest farm and called 999. Sos was still alive when the ambulance arrived; I started to believe that she and the baby might make it. Then a helicopter touched down on a patch of open ground further down the road. The crew wore matching red jumpsuits and walked in slow motion, the way really beautiful people walk in films. They said they would airlift Sos to Bristol royal infirmary, but there was no room on board for me. They took off and a gust of wind swept them down into the valley – I briefly thought that Sos was going to survive a road accident only to die in an air crash.
It took three hours to get to the hospital. I arrived to find Sos strapped to a backboard in A&E, waiting for an MRI scan. She’d broken her pelvis in two places and fractured her cheek in three. The right side of her face was swollen and bloody and unrecognisable. The baby was alive but not moving.
She stayed in hospital for seven days. The baby started moving. The doctors said they would discharge her when she could walk up a flight of stairs on her own. Sos is a tough woman; on day six, she took the maximum dose of painkillers and walked up a flight of stairs. The following day, I drove her home. She was on crutches for 10 weeks and walked unaided for the first time just after she had an epidural in the birthing suite.
It’s been 15 years. Sos can’t run half-marathons any more, but she rows and cycles. Our son is 14, a perfectly ordinary, wonderful, bone-idle, PS4-addicted teenager who seems completely unaffected by his in utero adventure and the morphine afterwards.
It’s thanks to the NHS that my wife and our youngest son are still alive. But that’s not the main reason I love the NHS. I would love the NHS if neither Sos nor I had ever been inside a hospital or seen a GP. Nor does it have anything to do with the fact that so many NHS staff are kind and caring. The organisation employs more than a million people and some of them, inevitably, are rude and incompetent (one NHS psychologist, during a particularly dark period in my life, said: “Suicide is always an option”).
I love the NHS because we pay for it with our taxes, and because the care we receive is the same whether we’ve paid a million pounds or nothing. If we want to save the NHS, we need to celebrate tax. We need to think of it not as money the government steals from us, but as our contribution to a safe and just and healthy society. We need to think of tax-reducing loopholes as stealing from hospitals and schools. We need those who are well-off to pay more, and I include myself in that category. An extra 1% on the top rate, 2%, 5%, whatever it takes.
The true worth of the NHS is not that it saved our family. It is that it would make the same effort for every family, even if that family were destitute. The true worth of the NHS is that those of us who are lucky enough to pay tax can go to sleep at night, knowing that we have helped make that radical kindness possible.
…for keeping my brother and sister alive: Nadiya Hussain, cook and author
As a child, one of my favourite jobs was to collect the post from the front door. Once, Cadbury was posting free samples of chocolate bars and I lived in hope that day would come again. It never did.
Collecting the letters, and my disappointment, off the floor, I would sift through them; there was never one for me, always one for Mum and Dad. But whenever I caught the NHS stamp on the top of the envelope, addressed to the parent or guardian of so-and-so, I felt my throat sink to the pit of my stomach. On those days, I did not take pleasure in waking my sleeping parents with a pile of post. “I’ll just leave the letter on the side for someone to find it,” I would tell myself. I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. Another letter opened meant another appointment, another set of tests, another operation, another long hospital stay. Weeks of playing in hospital playrooms, because where else do the healthy kids go when a sibling is strapped to a hospital bed and everyone’s goodwill has run out?
I am one of six, and have two siblings who were both born with serious health conditions (my sister has a heart valve defect; my brother a bilateral cleft lip and palate), which meant they spent more time than they care to remember within the confines of a hospital bed. We were the NHS and it was us. Our lives revolved around those three letters, from the instant the post hit the doormat right up to the point when they could walk, talk or simply smile to let us know they were OK.
My nan’s words still ring in my ears: “If they had been born in Bangladesh, they would be dead right now.” We were lucky: first-generation British children, born to immigrant parents, with a grandma who relied on pictures on cans to work out what was inside them. My parents would never have dreamed of private healthcare, no matter how poorly their children. Luckily, they never had to.
My brother and sister, now in their 30s, scarred, weary and a little emotionally bruised, are here today because the NHS was all we had. It was a given, it was there; they sought treatment without a thought. We will for ever be grateful that my parents never had to worry about how their children would be saved. They are here, and they are here because of hope.
Nadiya’s Family Favourites, a new eight-part series, starts on BBC Two next month. The accompanying book is published by Michael Joseph.
…for caring for Mum, without asking for a penny: David Oyelowo, actor
In 2014 I was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for the past 11 years, when I got a message from my father. It said: “Your mother is in the hospital in critical condition.” She had suffered a brain aneurysm, aged 67, completely out of the blue. I immediately got on a plane.
She was admitted to the Whittington hospital in north London before being taken to two other hospitals, because she had gone into a vegetative state. Day in, day out, the staff at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London were dealing with genuine trauma: for the patients, it was brain trauma; for the families, it was deep emotional trauma, because brain injuries are devastating and sudden. All of that was covered by the NHS, and it was world-class care. It takes living in a country without the National Health Service to recognise and appreciate how incredible an asset it is to British culture.
The thing that would be unimaginable – and is the reality for families in countries that don’t have an NHS – is going through something as traumatic and then having to consider the price tag; having to, in that moment, wonder which is the best hospital, which is the best place to address something so unexpected. Those considerations being taken off the table certainly made the most difficult episode of our lives far more bearable. After 15 months, we ended up flying to the US for cutting-edge neurological help, which cost an eye-watering amount of money – but that’s not a prospect for everyone. It didn’t end well. Mum passed away last year, having spent her last six months at home with me, my wife and our four children, alongside my father.
My younger brother works for the NHS as a nurse and it’s a demanding profession: they are underfunded and overstretched. It was so tough with my mum that he had to take some time out afterwards. People who work for the NHS are human beings; they’re seeing some of the toughest moments in people’s lives, and then juggling that with tough moments in their own lives. The care that was afforded my mum is something I want to give the NHS a big hug for.
…for giving me a few more years: Clive James, writer
At home in my Cambridge house, which nowadays I rarely leave for long, medical people from Addenbrooke’s hospital call on me to make small repairs to my raddled frame. Or, for bigger things, they might receive me at the hospital itself, having made due allowance for the fact that the place is now so vast I might conk out somewhere in its corridors while I search for the specified clinic. The result of all this careful attention is that I have lived several years past my predicted time of extinction, and that my credibility as a dying man is in tatters. Lifting a Paper Mate Flexgrip Ultra ballpoint pen takes all my strength, but the resulting prose says I am still alive and full of energy.
To protect my image as a man teetering on the edge of oblivion, I wish, when I write, that there were a special form of death’s-door syntax I could use, but the best deliberately feeble sentence I can do still out like this comes. It’s patently a con-job, and anyway, unless told not to, some bright spark of a Guardian junior editor would soon put it back together. One thing I learned during my years in Fleet Street is that it’s almost impossible to get a deliberate mistake into a quality paper.
So I’m stuck with still sounding healthy when I write, and the impression is only mildly misleading because the NHS has been doing a marvellous job on me. I was officially doomed years ago, but while my chronic leukaemia was in remission, a new drug came along that would hold the beast at bay when it came back, thereby leaving space for my numerous lesser disorders to be dealt with. And now I’m told that if this drug should cease to work its magic, there’s another, even newer drug already in the picture.
The NHS will go on for ever being almost broke because there will always be more things it can do. You might profess to be appalled that the NHS has spent millions on a new drug to stop people suddenly turning upside down and falling on their head, but you will be less appalled the first time you yourself suddenly turn upside down and fall on your head.
The real reason it all costs so much is that it works. Destiny dictates that the day must come when it is working for you, if only to attach a label to one toe of your lifeless corpse. This prediction might seem a bit personal but medicine, beyond a certain point, is all personal. Some of my critics (a few of the crazier ones will say my death has indeed been too long delayed) refuse to believe that I am doing anything more exalted than turning cartwheels in front of the grandstand, having never suffered from ill health in my life.
All I can say is that I have been following the career of Eddie the Eagle, and have learned his lesson. Eddie’s lesson is that if you want to maintain your credibility as a duffer, a show of competence can be fatal. In his first seasons of failed ski-jumping, Eddie won the hearts of all the world as he took off from the ramp and headed not for the snowy landing area far below, but for the hotdog concession in the middle of the watching crowd. Then the camera pulled back and showed that he was on the correct course after all, but just wasn’t going very far. The way was open for the viewer to conclude that Eddie suffered from an utter lack of athletic talent. For years on end Eddie flew abroad to blunder for Britain, but then he entered himself in a celebrity diving event at home and threw a reasonably good forward one-and-a-half somersaults, right there on television. If he had remembered to point his toes the dive would have been perfect; but it was pretty good anyway, and it instantly destroyed his international position as the lone if lousy British ski-jumper.
The same thing happened to the Tongan cross-country skier Pita Taufatofua, who turned up at the recent Winter Olympics in Korea with a well-maintained reputation for getting nowhere every time. This time, however, he got somewhere: a few skiers dropped out with exhaustion and Pita made the huge mistake of not beating them to the hospital. Instead, he raced for the finish line, arriving almost on the same day as everybody else. And there he was, filling the screen with his triumphant smile, his reputation as a goof completely ruined.
But you’ve guessed how this article must end. I can’t guarantee to hit a weekly deadline any more, but I can still think of writing the occasional book, even if the thinking part is the only bit of the book that actually gets done. Later this year I will have a long short poem coming out – or a short long poem – called The River In The Sky. I myself think it is pretty nifty, but how do you know that I have not gone nuts? You don’t, because neither do I. Beyond that slim volume, I have plans for a fatter volume: the sixth and last volume of my autobiography.
My chief problem is that this latest and presumably last tract of my life has consisted of almost nothing except lying there being probed and squeezed. So an account of the proceedings will be like a book of pornography with the sex left out. If it gets done. But so far, in these years of disintegration and delayed demise, every time I’ve started writing something I’ve found myself flying on the wings of Eddie the Eagle, closing in on the hotdog stand like a falling angel. It’s all happening, but maybe this is all there is. Meanwhile, my thanks to the NHS, which has given me the strength to make the attempt.
…for saving my sight, and bringing peace of mind to millions: Gordon Brown, former prime minister
Sometimes there is one single idea, one concept, one image that defines a whole country – its character, its sense of itself, its purpose and direction. It is something that takes you beyond the historic battles, the ancient monuments and the seemingly immutable geography. It is a notion that sums up a nation more than the glories of any famous individual or the seismic nature of a major event.
For Britain and for me, it is our National Health Service. No other country has taken the groundbreaking steps that Aneurin Bevan ordered 70 years ago. The NHS officially began working at 9am on Monday 5 July 1948 and even now, few have dared to match Britain’s ambition.
Each of us has our own personal experience of the NHS: parents and grandparents cared for in their final days; babies helped because of the skills of midwives; relatives suffering previously inoperable or untreatable conditions, now restored to good health.
In my own case, at 16, I was threatened with blindness because of a rugby injury. It was touch and go. Three failed operations had left me without any sight in my left eye – and then one morning I realised my right eye was going exactly the same way.
When I walked into Edinburgh royal infirmary, I was referred to a young surgeon called Hector Chawla, who had just completed expert training in retinal surgery. I got to him the day before he went on holiday. Had I waited 24 hours longer, he would have been gone and I doubt that I would have any sight today. In 2009, when further tears were found in my retina, it was the same brilliant doctor who came to my aid again.
Those life-changing moments are why few of us speak of “the” hospital or even “my” hospital, but talk proudly of our hospital, our doctors, our nurses.
Sixteen years ago our Labour government announced a way to refinance the NHS for the new century. With the biggest single tax rise in our country’s history – £9bn a year more, from a 1p rise in employer and employee national insurance – we were able to employ 30,000 more doctors and 80,000 more nurses and start the biggest hospital-building programme in NHS history.
Now in 2018, after eight Tory years of austerity, we must refinance the NHS yet again to meet new needs, such as social care, and to deal with a growing backlog of underinvestment, staff shortages and missed targets.
Of all the words used by Bevan to describe the benefits of the NHS, the one he returned to most was a word we rarely use today – serenity. After years in which great-grandparents, grandparents and parents had no peace of mind when their loved ones were sick, because they simply could not afford the treatment, serenity was what the NHS provided. It still does.
…for helping me transition: Juno Dawson, novelist
The first step of my medical transition (a social transition is something quite different) was visiting my wonderful GP, Dr Carter. It was a scorching July day and I shuffled into his office in Battersea, south London. As ever, he greeted me warmly – he is an avid reader of my work, bless him – and asked me what was wrong. A sore throat? A chest infection?
“This might be a long one,” I said.
“Not a problem.”
“I… need to be referred,” I muttered, “to a gender clinic.”
He didn’t bat an eyelid. We talked things through for about 30 minutes. (I’m very sorry to anyone who was in the waiting room on that sweltering day.) By the end of the session, Dr Carter was convinced that medical transition was the right step forward. He even suggested a few ways we could shorten the wait for my first appointment at the gender clinic.
There is a reason the NHS supports transgender people through medical transition. We are very vulnerable. Gender dysphoria (my diagnosis) is not a mental illness, but we know that living as a trans person – in a highly volatile environment, often facing rejection at home and work – predisposes us to mental health problems. A 2012 study found that 84% of trans people had thought about suicide, while 48% had attempted to kill themselves. That’s pretty much half of us. And the NHS is about saving lives: not some lives, all lives.
The current system is not ideal. Referral rates have soared, placing further strain on already strained services for trans people. Waiting times for initial appointments are torturously long (sometimes upwards of two years), at the point when we’re struggling most. Even at a brand new clinic in Northampton, my wait increased from five months to six and eventually 10.
Medical intervention for trans people isn’t as dramatic as some tabloids may have led you to believe. I have two appointments at a gender clinic a year, to monitor hormone levels. I have a repeat prescription for hormone replacement therapy (the same drug any woman on HRT takes) and an anti-androgen injection every three months. (It’s important to state that not all trans people access medical services; some either can’t or choose not to.)
Everyone gets very hung up on what surgeries trans people may or may not have had. The NHS will refer trans people for some gender-confirming surgeries, but cosmetic treatments – breast augmentations and facial feminisation – usually have to be sought privately. Last year I paid to have some nips and tucks on my face, to help me feel less terrified when I’m out on the street. After all, I can’t very well hide my face: it’s what the world sees first. I would argue that such cosmetic surgeries allow trans people to live full and contented lives and should be covered by the NHS. Living in the right body is something I imagine most people take for granted.
My worries for the NHS are the same as yours. It is being deliberately fragmented, so that those who can afford a little bit of private healthcare will opt to circumnavigate the waiting lists. I know because I’ve done it twice. I think the present government wants to scrap the NHS, and intends to do so by gaslighting us into believing we asked it to do so. So we must form a protective circle: the NHS is the last thing that makes our country brilliant.
Juno Dawson’s most recent book, Clean, is out now (Quercus Books).
…for giving me back my life: Maggie O’Farrell, novelist
How do I love the NHS? Let me count the ways. I love that it is there at all, that this vast system exists to aid and heal people, whoever they are. I love the fact that in this country you can pick up a phone and summon help, regardless of where you live or what you might earn. It’s tempting to get grouchy and huffy, to focus on waiting lists or delayed appointments or scrambled prescriptions, but we all need to incant this to ourselves, on a daily basis: the NHS is free, it is inclusive, it is, I believe, this country’s superpower.
On a micro level, I could fill a series of books recounting how grateful I am to certain individual NHS workers. It was the neurologists and nurses in 1980s south Wales who ensured I didn’t die from viral encephalitis, and it was the physiotherapists who gave me back my life. They restored me to movement, to independence, to an ambulatory state, and taught me how to grasp a pencil. I wouldn’t be sitting here, writing this, if they hadn’t persisted with my months and months of treatment.
The people who help you, who come to your aid in a moment of crisis, retain a specific, vivid place in your memory (creating a strange, one-sided relationship because, of course, you are just a job to them, just one in a hundred faces that day). I will never forget the dermatology nurse who hugged me when I broke down in tears over my baby’s chronic eczema. Or the calm, kind surgeon who, at 3am, in a deserted corridor, explained the risks involved in my child’s emergency surgery. The consultant who handled my daughter with the most respectful and careful of touches, and who was the first person to suggest she might have allergies. The orderly who held my hand as I was losing blood on the operating table. The anaesthetist who waited until the song playing on the radio – A Good Day To Die – was over before he put me under. The porter who picked me up and carried me back to my room when, aged eight, I’d been sedated after becoming distraught with fear during a Cat scan.
Yes, there are times when people within the NHS have fallen short. I would like to sit down with the obstetrician who oversaw – and I use the word in its loosest sense – my first labour, and look him in the eye and say: please learn to listen, please don’t dismiss women as hysterics and fantasists. To the nurses who repeatedly administered the very medication to which I kept telling them I was allergic, I would say: I know you were stretched and short-staffed, but sometimes you need to hear what the patient is saying.
For those of us who don’t work within it, the NHS exists as a parallel world, a little like Narnia. We visit it occasionally, when a rip in our world demands it; we slip into its rooms, corridors, staircases, and there the most extreme and terrifying and thrilling moments of our lives will play out. The people there look different from us; they wear strange clothes and speak another language; they are imbued with unimaginable skills, with astonishing machines and tools; they possess the power to give us potent elixirs, to heal us, to bring us back to life.
There can’t be a single one of us who hasn’t visited this world, at one time or another. We need to honour it; we need to value it; we need to do everything we can to save it. We need it.
Maggie O’Farrell’s most recent book is her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death (Tinder Press).
…for helping me live my dream: Kadeena Cox, Paralympian
Before I had a stroke, in May 2014, I was one of the healthiest people you’d meet. I was an elite athlete. I remember my running wasn’t going very well; I’d entered the Loughborough International [athletics event] and was suffering from unexplained weakness, but I just thought I was dehydrated. It was our university ball that night; I burned myself on my hair curlers and fell down the stairs – I wasn’t in a fit state to be going anywhere. In the morning, the weakness was much worse, so I went to A&E. My uncle had had a stroke the year before, so the doctors were quick to get me scanned, but also calm.
I spent the next four months getting back to a version of myself I recognised, when I was hit with the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. A tingling in my arm spread through my limbs until I couldn’t control my movements. I was in a lot of pain; I was bed-bound for two months and put on two and a half stone. As a physiotherapy student at Manchester Metropolitan University at the time, I’d met stroke and MS patients who used wheelchairs and catheters– and as a 23-year-old that prospect was horrifying. But the consultant at Leeds general infirmary filled me with such confidence. He said, “This doesn’t mean your life’s over.”
Sport is what saved me – it was what I put all my energy into. By 2016 I was competing in the Summer Paralympics in Rio. I’ve not had as many relapses as other people, but the relapses I do have are quite severe, so I have a Copaxone injection three times a week. Because I struggle with injecting myself, having an MS nurse to check on me is invaluable. I also have an NHS physiotherapist who sees my full potential. When I first had the stroke, I said, “I’ve got this trial I want to do in 10 weeks – do you think that’s possible?” And she said, “I’m not sure it’s possible, but I’ll try everything in my power to get you there.” I wasn’t just an average patient recovering from a stroke; I was an elite athlete wanting to get back to my level, and she was brilliant at thinking outside the box.
The NHS is doing a really good job trying to push stem cell treatment forward, which will prevent further relapses and maybe even reverse the effects. I graduate this year and after I’ve finished my life as an athlete, I want to work with people with conditions like mine. Because it’s nice to have somebody who understands.
Kadeena Cox is an MS Society ambassador.
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