If you are British, you can’t fail to have noticed that our National Health Service celebrates 70 years since its inception today. Aneurin Bevan, Health secretary in the Attlee government, was the champion for a healthcare service that brought together all providers under one umbrella in order to provide care for all from “the cradle to grave” and “free at the point of delivery”.
This is not a political piece – there will be plenty out there to read – neither do I want to focus on the woes of our health service today or the shortages of money and staff. I have spent many years working in the service and am now find myself very much at the receiving end of it and I could write a book about the ups and downs. But today is for celebration of all that is good about our NHS and as a nurse in my former life, I could not let it pass unnoticed. These are just a few of my observations from personal experiences….
I spent my formative years growing up in London teaching hospitals with a group of like minded girls (and the odd chap!) who became family. We worked hard, we played hard, we were teens and able to cope with a night out followed by an early shift. The structures within the NHS then taught us self discipline, punctuality, reliability, pride, teamwork and respect (amongst other things!). We had experiences and encounters with patients and colleagues that would shape our young minds and remain with us for life.
I remember my first death, my first birth, my first still birth – all before I turned 20. I had never seen a dead body before (how many 18 year olds have?), but when an elderly patient whom I had cared for on my first ward died, she still needed to be cared for. In more recent times whilst working as a hospice nurse, I have often looked back and thanked a third year student nurse Kevin for teaching me not only how to lay a person out, but the importance to retain empathy and kindness whilst doing so. When I recall my first birth, I really don’t mean the birth of my first….although I do remember that, Young Engineer!! I was stood at the shoulder and then holding a leg during this labour and birth, and I can still recall the wonder when that little pink, slightly slimy being slid into the world. Actually he wasn’t so tiny at nearly 9lbs and was named Matthew, and I was privileged to be one of the first to have a cuddle. It has never left me.
The still birth came only weeks after the birth of baby Matthew. A couple had been admitted with a labour that had commenced at 29 weeks – third baby for mum, but first for dad. The midwife knew quickly that something was wrong and broke the heart breaking news that there was no heart beat. I was assigned as an inexperienced 19 year old to stay with this couple whilst labour progressed during my late shift. It is impossible to put into words all that I learnt that day. The bond that a carer can establish with a patient and relative under such intense physical, emotional and stressful circumstances was never clearer than that night. My shift ended at 10pm but I had to stay until that baby was born. Another baby boy entered the world at 2am the following morning, perfect, tiny and asleep. He was beautiful and that is the first time I have felt my heart break. His parents bathed him and dressed him for the first and last time. They held him, whispered to him, loved him – and whilst I felt that I was intruding on such a deeply personal experience, they were adamant I should stay. I carried that little boy away and cried my eyes out.
I have written about our experience as young nurses in a hospital in the 80s with an HIV and Aids unit here – a really challenging time for the NHS but rewarding, life affirming and so challenging for this bunch of young nurses. As a slightly more mature group some 30 years on we revisited our old stomping ground recently (read about it here) and it brought back so many memories – both from time as a student, and then as a young staff nurse in other London hospitals. During my time in palliative care I met some amazing patients, had the good fortune to have wonderful colleagues and learnt to appreciate life. I still miss being a nurse, I still feel like a nurse and I am still proud to have been a nurse in our NHS.
In recent years I have been in need of the NHS for friends, family and myself. From a dear friend dying from cancer, to the deaths of all my grandparents, to the middle child slamming a door on his sister’s hand that then required reconstructive surgery – the NHS has been there. A&E visits for broken bones, kidney stones and dislocations. The time when the lovely girl was taken seriously ill – “Mum, should she look like a zombie?” – and rushed in with a highly contagious gastroenteritis aged 6(Rota virus), and when dad showed all the symptoms of a brain tumour days before a holiday in Canada.
My experiences haven’t all been positive – particularly some of my own surgeries over the years – and I am now classed as chronically ill and at the mercy of our health service. I been on the receiving end of some dire care and have also had some fantastic care too (Medical professional to Professional Patient). But I do appreciate how far the NHS has come over the years, the technological & pharmaceutical advances that have been made, and the public interest in health. I have been inspired by some wonderful people over the years – Dr Joe Ford, a pioneer of breast cancer treatment in the 70s and wonderful teacher & colleague in palliative care: the staff nurse who cared for my great grandmother – she suggested to me, aged 17, that I had the makings of a good nurse; Julia Fabricius our nurse tutor; Paul Reeves, Charge Nurse at the Middlesex hospital who believed in me after my first back surgery and his friend Karen Aubrey who became my first ward Sister at Charing Cross Hospital and a great mentor; Geoff, my physiotherapist who worked with me as we both learnt about my condition; my pal Caroline who became a staff nurse on the first teen cancer ward in London – we laughed when she left our flat in her stripy leggings and purple Dr Martens boots as they didn’t wear uniform; and wonderful Cathryn, also in my set, who having fought for her registration now helps other nurses who face unfair dismissal or have been made scape goats. This list could honestly go on and on…..but must include everyone in my set, March ’88!
The National Health Service is a sum of all its parts – at times it is brilliant, other times it fails; there are the cutting edge treatments and the failing, understaffed departments. But today it turned 70 and there are some fantastic people who still strive to deliver health care for all, from cradle to grave, free to all; people who over the years have made it the institution, for better or for worse, that it is today – Happy Birthday!
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