“This is why I fight”

Mike Stafford tells us why a public NHS is indispensable for all of us.

I picked up my prescriptions again last week. Every time I visit the doctors, I’m reminded of my most dramatic trip there back in late 2010.

I’d been having bouts of illness for several months. Fatigue to the point where walking across the room was a challenge, frequent vomiting in the mornings, and endless feelings of dehydration. I was working from home but still managed to end up too ill to work for seven days during the year.

Then, in October, I was taken out of action for a whole week. I spent four days on the sofa, wrapped in a fleece and a blanket, shivering to my bones. On Wednesday, my wife dragged me to pester my GP again; they took blood tests and called me back on Friday. By Thursday night, it took me three attempts to walk up the stairs, and I was mumbling deliriously as I did so.

On Friday, they called me in to discuss my results. After months of suffering with this mystery illness, just to hear it given a name was a huge relief. That name was Addison’s Disease. Invariably fatal at the time Dr Thomas Addison first discovered it, these days it’s medicated with steroids and has no effect on quality of life or life-expectancy at all. I was in the midst of an Addisonian crisis, the stage of the disease that comes just prior to death by circulatory collapse. Pleasant, eh?

I was taken to the Medical Assessment Unit at the Royal. Given the state I was in when I got there, the nurses informed me that the Intensive Care Unit had been notified of my arrival. It’s all of about sixty feet from the main doors of the Royal to the corridor off towards the MAU. Walking that distance was one of the most physically strenuous things I’ve ever done.

At the MAU, I was hooked up to a drip, given anti-vomiting drugs, injected with steroids and talked through the process by a medical staff whose bedside manner was invariably superb. At each stage, they let me know what they were doing and why they were doing it. From being on the brink of death on Friday morning, and having had half a Pot Noodle to eat all week (it’s funny what you can get down when you’re ill), by tea time I was in a fit state to eat, and enjoy, a whole meal. By Saturday morning, after a sleep in my own en suite room, I was ready for release. Walking through the lobby 24 hours earlier had been like climbing the north face of the Eiger. Leaving, I strode across it easily, and when I got to the car park did some Dick van Dyke heel clicks for my wife’s amusement. It was the fittest I’d felt in years.

The staff of the NHS saved my life that day, and did it with smiles on their faces and decency radiating from them throughout. As I type this I still feel a profound sense of gratitude.

When all this happened, I had less than fifty quid in my bank account. I’m a father of three; I’m not poor but I’m not exactly flush with cash. When I hear plans bandied around suggesting we need to abandon the founding principles of the NHS in order to save it, my blood begins to boil.

It takes a long time to diagnose Addison’s disease. Several trips to the GP, in fact. How many trips could I have afforded if plans to charge for GP visits had been approved? When I arrived at the hospital, what standard of care could I have expected on a ward run by the cheapest possible provider? As soon as she made the diagnosis, my GP was on the phone to the hospital to give them a heads up I’d be arriving. Could I have expected two rival private firms to co-operate so freely and effectively?

It goes deeper than that though. The NHS cured me because I am a member of the community, because I was sick and needed to be made well, nothing more. This is not the remit of a private firm, nor will it ever be. Only a publicly-funded, publicly-run health service can be trusted to place the patient at the heart of everything it does.

You can read more from Mike Stafford on his blog, ‘Returning the Favour‘.

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