I recently had open heart surgery at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. A traumatic experience, but one which has left me deeply grateful for the NHS – massively complex and intricate surgery and after-care – carried out with extraordinary skill, care and attention and FREE.
In my recent article for The London Economic I wrote about the creeping privatisation of the NHS. Here I want to highlight the NHS at it best. A health system based in Aneurin Bevan's words on the principle that “No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”
I am lucky to be a citizen of a country that can offer me the medical procedures I underwent that have kept me alive. For me, it is second time lucky. Three years ago I had brain surgery that would not have been possible in the past and remains, as does the heart procedure, an impossibility for much of the world's population.
We need to bear this in mind as we fight for our NHS against the privatisers. They are creeping in through the cracks in our defences. As recentlyl as five months ago, Barts were responsible for their own catering. One nurse told me what pride he took in serving food to his patients and how this was a central part of nursing care. Today this has been handed to Serco, who run our prisons and whose annual revenue from healthcare is over £1.4 billion. Breakfast was tepid tea or coffee, cereal or porridge and toast. As I bit into the cold, spongy “toast” I could imagine Serco executives meeting to discuss how to cut back their costs to increase their profits. “Let's start with breakfast”.
I got to know my fellow patients, some with more problems than mine. Barry had already had three heart operations when he arrived at Barts in January for his fourth. His operation lasted 28 hours and they “lost” him three times. He told me of his out of body experiences which had traumatised him and made him scared of going to sleep. He badly needed psychological care, but with the present level of cuts in NHS funding, this is not available.
Just as food is important to getting better, so is after care.There was a time when post-operative patients would spend time in convalescent hospitals. No more. In Germany and even in the countries of Eastern Europe where I used to live, all operations included a minimum of one month's post-op stay in a health spa.
We not only have to fight for our NHS, but have to claw back what has already been scalpelled away and hived off to the Richard Bransons of this world.What memories do I take away from the time I spent at Barts? Not the operation and its after-effects of pain and worry, but the nursing care I received with such commitment and humour. The nurse pushing my bed down a corridor who I got chatting to. On hearing I was a writer, he brought my bed to a halt and with a wonderful smile quoted verbatim from Gabriel García Márquez's 'Love in the Time of Cholera:' “Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.”
Then there was the nurse replacing my chest bandage who wanted me to breath in deeply. “Puff out your chest”, she said, 'like a Robin Redbreast.'
Barry, a Jamaican living in Finsbury Park, would chat to the patient beside him, a Trinidadian from West London, about their youthful memories of their island homes and their love of the calabash tree, its soft brown bark home to multi-coloured orchids. They told me that these trees, pollinated by bats, grow on hillside pastures, along roadsides and wherever there are human beings.
The pulp of the fruit has medicinal properties and acts as a remedy for respiratory problems such as asthma, a cure for dysentry, reduces blood pressure, disinfects wounds and is used to treat haematomas and tumours.
The NHS is our Calabash tree.