There’s been countless a time where I’ve walked into a forest alone and found myself completely lost. Not because I am blind, or because there is no longer any visible path in the clearing, but because in the moment, I couldn’t think of anything else beyond the fact that I was just, very lost. I took a deep risks.
The first time I stumbled upon this rather sticky situation was when I was ‘exploring’ Muir Woods National Park north of San Francisco, alone. With no tactile or audio maps available, I was advised to stay put to the wooden pathway that twirled its way in and out amongst the foliage. Only, the tip of my white cane very quickly rolled away from this focus, and surely enough, I soon found myself clambering up the soiled banks, somewhere in the forest, talking to tree-trunks, and very much off-piste.
During my more recent visit to Hong Kong, I decided to trek an alternative route to Victoria Peak’s highest viewing point over the city, again, alone…not that I was going to physically ‘see’ much of this anyway. I accidentally found myself climbing up a vertical storm ladder, ducked and dived over various stray twigs and branches, yet, some while in, I stopped to turn back on myself, back on where I had come from, only to find that there was absolutely no trail left behind me. I was standing, alone, in the very centre of another forest. My white cane dropped off the side of every direction I drew it out on, indicating that I was very evidently stood on the edge of some wooded cliff-top. I sat down, shuffled my bottom across, slid vertically down this slope, entered another clearing, which was only surrounded by an 8-foot wrap of spikey metal fencing. I crept onto my stomach, wriggled out, drew the white cane out, only to again find the tip of it rolling off over the edge. As the sound of civilisation re-emerged, I knew I was close. I sat down once more, slid down the side of this ‘cliff’, but in a rather dramatic twist to my adventure, I found myself stranded, on the hard-shoulder of one of Hong Kong’s motorways. I spent the next half hour treacherously navigating along the slithering stretch of clear road, as motorists streamed past at speeds of 70km/h, honking their horns at this supposedly idiot blind person walking uncomfortably astray. In this circumstance, I found myself having to be a little green-fingered, but in the context of mowing down the hard-shoulder, rather than watering a few more trees.
To get to something – an answer, we are always looking for the evidence, be that a map, a designated trail, a set of directions home, as given by GPS. This is also very much the case when it comes to clues at the crime scene or where the final destination goes wandering. We look for the footprints, we look for the tyre tracks, we look for the source of water when we hear the trickling stream – anywhere where somebody else or something else has already ventured along before. So, when there isn’t that track, path, or pool of water, we hesitate, and hold back. We are no longer so certain to take the journey. I, for one, am taking the untaken path, all the time. Being the UK’s first deafblind medical student training towards becoming a doctor has its obvious uncertainties, its lack of evidence, lack of back-up, concrete path. But, this isn’t what this blog is about. This time I am writing about the other tracks and forest trails, that are becoming so thick and muddy that we cannot tread them at all – not because we don’t want to, or because we can’t see them, but because it is just being made impossible.
A chilly October weekend 2 years back, I went into respiratory arrest on the side of a mountain. There were no clear-cut paths, roads, GPS points, making it almost impossible for an Emergency Service crew to reach our unknown destination. Yes, some roads are far less travelled, but what happens when we need to journey those routes when they are our only alternative? Can that mountain pass be reached by land ambulance, road-bike, the weary foot, or a person’s own wheelchair? Or is it only fit for the thick rugged tyres of a monster Land Rover? I can guarantee you that many a mode of transport, many a wheelchair, many a broken foot has trodden that patch, but not without getting stuck. We have refused to allow their passage go noticed, and so without great impact, they never resurface, and fewer people are inclined to drive it, walk it, wheel it, roll it. Just when will we ensure every road is accessible to all – career roads, mountain passages, driveways, parking spaces, the weekly grocery store route?
In the context of politics and our NHS then, that path, road, passage, whatever you wish to call it – is not so clear-cut. I myself am in no way politically-natured in this circumstance – the mud on the road is, metaphorically speaking, far too mucky in itself. Once you get stuck in the goo of an unfamiliar road, you very quickly fall down the potholes, get anchored down, infected and drowned by this thick swampish mud, unable to shift free. The innocence of the dove glued down by the swathe of spilt oil. Shortly before arresting on the side of the mountain, 2 years ago to this day, I too found myself wading through a knee-high swamp of mud. In places, it became so thick that the ball of my cane got caught entirely in the thick of it. Although I heaved the white stick out with all my might, very nearly toppling over the side in the process, the tip of the cane, the ball, remained well and truly stuck, in the mud. So although I wanted to cross this muddy track, everything before me had been swallowed up, including my own aid that helps me see. It had become an illusion of something I should’ve otherwise simply just walked over to get to the other side – the final destination, the real business. In many forms. Getting to the top of safety before my lungs completely conked out, getting through Medical School training to become a qualified Doctor. To save the NHS from this drowning.
Because our NHS is in the thick of it. We are not just swimming in the mud, but we are thick, to the brim, and drowning in it. Our healthcare system has become a swamp, swamped. Every single one of us who is trying to cross the muddy road, to re-pave, re-surface our sinking, struggling healthcare system, are only losing their way, because the footsteps of others have only been dissolved. The tyre tracks have disappeared so we can no longer see one clear direction in which the NHS road is heading towards. The foundations we have spent 71 beautiful, careful years laying out the NHS in concrete, tarmac, cementing it with all our core values, are disintegrating in the dirt of those who don’t wish to see that long-lived road survive, continue driving, so that we can all walk it. If those lurking in the woods sell our NHS off, then the forest trail will not only be lost, but it will simply become impassable to every broken foot, every rolling wheelchair, every land ambulance, and so on. Every, single, one of us. And that, is a mud-sinking feeling like no other. I, for sure, have already sunk, too many times, in this. As have many others. If we can’t pave the way, surely what hope does this give to the many generations walking behind us, and entering the NHS?
I fear that now, because of this, even the paths well-trodden, are being ever-increasingly lost. With the upcoming winter fast-approaching, we must not hibernate. Never mind these ‘winter pressures’ dressed up to be only seasonal, we need to head out, be the badger, be the fox – be vigilant, focused, scoop deep and dig up new tunnels to find new ways over this swamp – our drowning NHS. But above all, we need to stop looking for old tyre tracks in the mud, because really, they were only cemented for yesterday. The sheer illusion of these tyre tracks were only ever imprinted for the tyres of those monster Land Rovers, driven by the very drivers of corruption and filth. Let’s not get lost in this. The risks are too deep.