Wake up, have biscuit, pass water and go

Aunt Muriel never suffered a day's illness until the electronic chair suddenly went berserk
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The Independent Culture
WILL THE radical reshaping of the NHS proposed in the Queen's Speech mean new sofas in my doctor's waiting room? It's beginning to look a bit dingy, though it couldn't be more than five years since it was last done up. That was when the five partners in my general practice stopped being boring, old-fashioned doctors and became exciting new medical fund- holders responsible for their own budgets and entitled to decided for themselves how their limited finances could be of best use to their patients. By the way, are we still patients or have we - like railway passengers - become customers?

Anyway, being civilised sort of chaps, our GPs decided that what we patients needed first of all was somewhere decent to sit while waiting for our appointments. As they were in charge of their own resources the practice moved to a leafy mews.

My first appointment in the mews was entirely spent discussing the new decor. Yes, my doctor agreed as he leant back in his stylish, matt black, revolving leather armchair, the stripped pine floors did set off the antique Turkish Kelims beautifully and it had been the family counsellor's idea to utilise the wall space like a gallery.

What I had not appreciated was that GP fund-holders - powerful as their financial independence makes them in matters concerning stripped pine and Kelim - are powerless when it comes to minor details such as hospital waiting lists, hospital procedure and hospital practice. As I get older and potentially iller, I am asked by friends why I do not subscribe to a private medical insurance plan.

"Because I believe in the NHS," I snap, and in fairness, it has always served me very well. Not so my favourite aunt Muriel who never suffered a day's illness in her life until the electronically adjustable upholstered chair that her fam- ily bought her last Christmas suddenly went berserk. It shot two feet into the air of its own accord and threw Aunt Muriel to the ground where she sustained multiple injuries, including a broken collar bone, when the chair fell on top of her. She was taken to hospital where, to her horror, she found herself in a mixed ward. Useless to protest that she had never seen a man in pyjamas in her life. Single sex wards are uneconomical, advised the staff nurse. Besides, this was the way forward. It was modern. Poor hitherto indomitable Aunt Muriel. The electronically adjustable chair only broke her bones. Two weeks in hospital flanked on either side by men in pyjamas emitting indescribably disgusting noises by all accounts every night broke her spirit.

Last time I went to see my doctor, we spent a little less time discussing the new exhibition (Ethiopian scenes, shell on raffia) and talked about my problem. Nothing serious, he assured me, I'd have to go to hospital for day surgery. There'd be a general anaesthetic but it was very simple. Naturally there was a waiting list which he could do nothing about.

A week before the appointed day, a nurse rang from the hospital to give me what she called a pre-assessment - the usual questions about ailments, allergies and abnormalities. At 8am sharp last Monday morning, a serious young Chinese nursing assistant with huge round rimless glasses and baggy green trousers showed me to my trolley/bed.

"Have you had any serious illness since your pre-assessment?" she asked suspiciously. The gynaecologist arrived and started to explain what she was going to do with a piece of bent wire and a blow torch. I said I'd really rather not know but she insisted it was modern practice. At noon I was wheeled up to theatre. At 3pm I was woken up by this serious young Chinese nursing assistant slapping my face quite hard and telling me it was time to get up.

"But I'm tired. I want to sleep," I mumbled.

"No, you must wake up. You must drink your tea. You want a biscuit? Then you got to pass water and go. Where is your escort?" Beyond the curtains of my cubicle I could see the trousered legs and trainers of the next patient waiting for my trolley. Well, at least they were doing something about the waiting list.

If the radically re-shaped NHS we have been promised allows GPs to insist on elderly maiden aunts being accommodated in female-only wards, or better still in private cubicles, then I am all for it. And if they insist that patients who have had general anaesthetics, to say nothing of bits of wire and blow torch shoved into them, just be allowed to wake up in their own good time without being pinched and slapped and forced to eat biscuits, that would be nice too. Private medical insurance? Over my dead body.