The story of ten women and a day of NHS

I might turn this blog into a journal because, God knows, I feel like it sometimes. Yesterday (it’s 2am – ha! I outlived yesterday!) was vile.

So, yesterday: at 6am I go to hospital for a minor operation. This is in the UK where we have a once-beautiful thing called the NHS (free healthcare for all) which is now woefully underfunded.

I need an “urgent” op that took months to set up (lost test results, limited date availability, two failed OP procedures already) and was then cancelled due to lack of staff. A few more weeks and one cancelled business trip later, I turn up on the revised date and join two surgery lists in the waiting room. There are eight of us and we share histories. After 2 hours I see the duty nurse who says, “You’re lucky to be on that list; the other one’s just been cancelled.”*

* “Them”: women in pain who have just rejigged their week, starved overnight, and got up at dawn to be here, several of whom have already been cancelled before.

A stressed-looking young nurse says, “I don’t know what to say to them!”(*) and her colleague takes her aside.

Today, it’s lack of beds.

I’m lucky: I’m called. I turn to the other women in the waiting room and we all wish each other luck.

I have my op. It’s a routine one: twenty minutes and I’ll be out of here. I brave the grim hospital gowns and trundle down to theatre with a feeling of utter relief that months of pain are going to be over soon.

I wake up. No pain. My body buzzes lightly with happy-pharma waves (thank you, fentanyl) and it’s over, I’m fixed! A moment of joy.

Except I’m not. I find out a couple of minutes later that it all went horribly (“not seen this once in twenty-five years” horribly) wrong. I need scans and another, bigger operation. And the stakes are higher. It’s not routine now.

This is my lost-test-results-cancelled-dates-nil-by-mouth-get-up-at-dawn-arse-flapping-gown-failed-op face

I sit up.

“And where d’you think you’re off to?” A stern nurse voice.

“I’m sitting up.” The scathing obvious. Now is not the time.

They wheel me back to the ward where I stand, dress, decline lunch (in case there’s any chance of further operation), hear a few details about what kind of mess might be residing inside me, and the potential for chopping and removing at some indeterminate point in the future. It’s relatively urgent but it’s not cancer so it won’t be any time in the next few weeks. A month or two? (Of pain.)

My consultant is a kind, skilled man who once saved my life and my child’s. This isn’t his fault and I’m glad he’s here. Neither of us looks happy right now, though. He’ll talk to colleagues and call me.

In the background, a ward nurse feeds a two struggling elderly patients. His gentleness is soothing. 

I swallow a coffee and leave.

My OH can’t manage school pick-up so I bowl up at the school gate stinking of anaesthetic-breath, blood, and bad coffee, with a faceful of opiate analgesic. It’s been nearly 24 hours since I ate and I’m so drugged and hungry, I can only leer owlishly at people, who give me funny looks.

“I just had an op.”

“Are you OK?”

I nod and wish they’d put their arms around me. I cry behind my sunglasses. They look at me even funnier and I can’t process what they’re saying so I wobble home with a load of school bags over one shoulder and a cute little boy telling me about his day that I’m really struggling to concentrate on, even though it’s the best bit of today.

I want a bath but my house is a building site (renovations planned around the original date). I wish I’d spent the money on a private operation except that some of the specialists are NHS-only (which I respect). I make sweet tea for the builder and me instead, and he laughs at me being all dizzy and he makes me laugh too.

I wonder how the women are getting on, whose ops were cancelled today. I wonder what will happen next for me, and them. I know some had bigger ops. I hope they went OK. I saw one looking relieved. I wonder what our NHS will look like in 2 years’ time? Where was this week’s 350 million pounds?

I’m lucky. I’m strong. Injured but not in immediate danger. I have to run the appointment-cancellation-operation gauntlet again and I don’t want to and it’s hideous, but I might be able to pay for scans and speed it up. I can fight to make this better for me. That’s a privilege not open to everyone. The only way we can make this OK for everyone is to look after our NHS.

It’s real. The headlines can’t tell us; we have to feel it in our bones. Let’s stop calling it “the NHS” – let’s call it “necessary medical treatment”. It’s health vs. sickness, pain relief vs. pain. It’s our bodies. It’s us.

And we’re letting it collapse around us. Like fools.

Image attribution.

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