For the most part, ignorance is seen as being blissful, overthinking is seen as an unnecessary detriment, and concerning ourselves over things entirely out of our control seems utterly pointless and exhaustive. And these are just some of the insights I am trying to dwell on at this very moment, whilst I sit up in bed, spending my third long week as an inpatient in hospital. From my small, square side room, I watch my fellow medical student colleagues out in the corridor pause thoughtfully through patients’ notes, something I so desperately want to be out there doing, but instead, I patiently wait for the doctors to come by on their morning ward round, to see me, on the other side of the bed, whilst I stare out at my hazy reflection in the ward window. And it’s a sight I cannot seem to fall blind to.
In all honesty, I look a bit worse for wear; pale, tired, a little daunted, and worrisome. But I am not worried about tomorrow. I am not worried about the side effects that this new anti-epileptic medication may incur, following an onset of new seizures. Nor am I worried about the open surgery they are planning to do. What I am really worried about, is next year. 3 years time. 5 years time. A generation’s time. Our NHS and my Medicine – both for my healthcare colleagues, and for my family, friends, and patients. Because ultimately, this all hangs treacherously in the balance, amongst scrunched paper and labels. This ignorance is not blissful. This is the ultimate detriment. This is entirely our concern and can be, if we keep the lens focused, something we take complete control over. So let me share with you a story; not a story of negativity, another horrific image of our overcrowded emergency departments, or the fatal consequence of a burnt out workforce, but rather, a positive story – a story of tale, lived experience, hope, and hopefully the one piece of convincing proof that reaffirms our NHS is everything, in the lyrics to this year’s John Lewis’ Christmas advert, “worth fighting for”.
It’s no secret when we say we owe our lives to the NHS. I certainly owe mine. I spent 1.5 years in hospital as a patient as a teenager, undergoing countless abdominal surgeries. I have little memory of that period, perhaps due to the incredible agony that was, for the most part, blocked out by strong opioids and an epidural, or simply just the fast deterioration; not just physically, but upon the every outlook I had for the future. But the gift of a feeding tube and bag gave me the absolute second chance to get my life back on track and clear those hazy outlooks on the future again – that being, to go to medical school and to become a Doctor. After my long-awaited discharge home back in 2011 I can remember the determination in wanting to return to the ward that had looked after me for so long, but to the other side of the bed, to help other patients who were going through similar ordeals as I had done. I volunteered day shifts, night shifts, long shifts, fed patients with Alzheimer’s their breakfasts, and wheeled the bedbound off the wards for a brief change of scenery. And then there was Gladys.
Gladys was a 70-something year old patient who lay opposite me on the same bay for many months. She was quiet, peacefully reserved, and had a single wisp of silver hair that hung over her left eyelid. Despite our age difference, Gladys and I became very good friends. The night nursing staff wheeled us over to each other’s beds so that we could ponder hours over board-games, beneath the single pool of headlamp light behind the cubicle curtains. Each week, our relatives would take in turns to buy us each the newspaper, (or in my case, the latest ‘Bella’ or ‘Take a Break’ magazine). Yet really, we spent most of our time sleeping, sweet pages untouched. We’d then jokingly make bets on who’d be the first person to go home. And that was me.
My first voluntary night shift on the ward as a work-experience student was uncomfortably quiet, to begin with, particularly so, given that I was so familiar to this ward I had spent so long on as a patient. I can remember the awkwardness of me twiddling my thumbs at the nurses’ station whilst all the staff were further down the corridor, turning over the bedbound patients, and wheeling squeaky commodes back and forth into the night. And then the shrill of the first buzzer rang. I got up and strode into A Bay, the tip of my white cane rolling from side to side. In the shadow of the sleeping ward, the patient was gasping. She was pale, skin stretched out, streaming in a cold sweat. A single wisp of silver hair hung over a left eyebrow. And then, to my horror, a volcanic stream of black erupted from the patient’s mouth. The stream spewed umbrella heads of bright red all over the sheets. Fresh. Blood. I anchored the patient up with two flat pillows, and called for help. The patient was still vomiting. Help came, and I was ushered away to see to another patient, constipated, and stuck on the ward toilet.
You might think that, after so many encounters with the worst kind of times inside the four white walls of the hospital that Medicine was the last thing I wanted to do, but my love of patients’ stories, the invaluable gift, or gifts, the NHS had given me, had me, far sooner before realising, devoted to this incredible, irreplaceable, precious system.
If you’ve been following my journey through my Medical School years, then you will know that I have struggled with lack of acceptance, ignorance and discrimination towards my disabilities, and being the UK’s first deafblind person to pursuing their Doctor dream. But really, there’s honestly so much more to me, it, than that. The summer of 2017 sent me to the USA on a spontaneous mission to search for fellow blind and deaf doctors practicing out there, and, not only was I inspired and reassured that doing this, was possible and entirely doable, I also learnt, very quickly, about some of the more sinister aspects of the American healthcare system. And it shocked me. Thousands of dollars to give birth to your baby? Informing your patients they require life-saving surgery, but can only be done if they hand over the money first? The impossible decisions families with pre-existing conditions and disabilities are faced with when it comes to fighting their insurance companies? The people-watching pensioner I met in a Brooklyn neighbourhood who told me they had to pay $200 to plaster a small finger cut? I have never been more grateful for what we have back at home – entirely free healthcare, at the very point of requirement, for anyone and everyone. If I ever were to become an American citizen, it would be my death sentence, quite literally.
And I suppose it doesn’t stop there. A holiday to Italy last summer turned into a nightmare when I developed sepsis and pneumonia. It landed me in the Intensive Care Unit on life support for 3 weeks. My 10th admission out of 17, to date. My parents were told to prepare for the worst – because I’d be flying home in a box. God forbid, no box was required, nor were we required to sell our house when I landed back on British soil. That entire month of rigorous, life-saving treatment was all covered, thanks to one little blue plastic card, EHIC.
I guess we don’t realise what we have, and how lucky we are to have it, until it is no longer in our reach. Some of us may wake up on Christmas morning disappointed – perhaps the new jumper was the wrong size, or the aftershave not quite the desirable scent. But really, there’s so much more significant things at the stake to be thinking about this Christmas. As a medical student, I have seen the strain, the blame, the night-shift shadows that have so many of my colleagues head in hands out in the corridor, the toss and turn between seeing to our own families, our loved ones, our children, and then to our patients. How many of my colleagues, tirelessly working, will miss their children open their presents this Christmas morning because the rotas are being squeezed, staff shortages are rife, the system being forced to cope in unimaginable circumstances, famished by greed?
Another “Good Morning” to the ward phlebotomist and I watch the brilliantly red blood seep into the purple-topped bottle. The same fresh, red blood that dotted the floor of the Emergency Department during my placement a few months back, the same fresh red blood that spewed out in umbrella heads on A bay. That, was Gladys. Gladys, never made it home, unlike I. She had end-stage oesophageal cancer. That night, she bled out, and died. I lost my first patient. I lost a neighbour, and I lost a good friend. And although we are capable of doing so much to help; resuscitation, pumping life back into those drained and grey-faced, ignorance, greed, oversight and politics are squeezing the blood-bags at far higher pressures – not back into our patients, but straight onto the floors of our hospitals, onto the crisp white linen of our many occupied beds. We are splashing through this blood-bath and there’s no amount of mops that can ever keep up with the streams. I can’t help but stare back at myself in my side-room window as we speak, watching the reflections of everyone behind it, shadowed and grey-faced. Drained of life. An NHS drained, of life.
We can send back the jumpers, we can send back the aftershave. But one day, our children will wake up one Christmas morning having missed out on the greatest gift of all – and that is our NHS. Don’t ignore it amongst scrunched paper and labels you’ve kicked back under the Christmas tree, because once you send this kind of gift back, we will never truly know what gratitude, and owing our lives to, feels like, ever again. And that’s certainly something I never want to face. Please, don’t be the blind eye that turns away from this.
Merry Christmas to all of you, and to those keeping the blood of our NHS warm and running this Christmas, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Many festive wishes, many happy returns, and please all stay safe xx
*N.B. For confidentiality purposes, the patient’s name has been changed for the purpose of this piece