Editor-At-Large: I've seen the worst of the NHS - and now I've seen the best

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The Independent Online

The National Health Service is a bit like the Labour government - nobody's got a good word to say about it. In the past week we've heard about the scandal of GPs' pay and the Tories unveiled their Big Idea, which seemed to mean that health trusts could set their own budgets and abolish targets set by central government. Then on Friday we heard about the wheelchair-bound patient who went to the bathroom and returned to find her bed had been stripped ready for the next patient - the hospital in Devon was so short of beds it seemed they couldn't wait till patients had actually got dressed before they were evicted.

I wrote in this newspaper about the scandalous lack of joined-up thinking at Hillingdon Hospital where my terminally ill sister spent her last hours in a mixed ward, before finally being sent to a hospice after she had lost consciousness. The resulting furore ended up with Patricia Hewitt answering questions on radio and television and demanding that all NHS trusts reported back on whether they were still putting terminally ill patients in mixed wards. I received more letters over that one column than anything I have ever written - and dozens of you wrote to tell me similar ghastly stories about your nearest and dearest and how the NHS had let them down.

After a long inquiry into the circumstances surrounding my sister's last few weeks, Hillingdon Hospital has assured me she wasn't sent home in a delivery van (I believe she was) and that "they regret" that the out-of-hours doctor on-call service took three hours to send anyone to see her. But, on the plus side, they have ruled that anyone who wants two pillows can have them - so that's all right then. As for the naked man who masturbated in front of her on the mixed ward - they are instituting a "red peg" system so that curtains separating the beds are more securely fastened. They are not getting rid of mixed wards, just pegging the curtains together - and they do hope to implement this by early summer. Hoorah!

Don't think that private healthcare is much better - in 2006 I contracted a serious blood infection after a minor surgical procedure in a private clinic - which resulted in two trips to A&E and five days in hospital followed by two months of antibiotics. Has the surgeon who carried out the first operation ever called me to find out how I managed to recover? Of course not - nobody ever takes any responsibility when things go wrong, and the fact I became seriously ill seems to be nobody's fault at all. Perhaps it's mine, who knows?

When I was asked to participate in a television series about the National Health Service, I leapt at the chance. I wanted to see how a hospital was run from the inside - and what better way than to spend two weeks working as a nursing auxiliary in Barnsley District General Hospital. After an induction day, I was sent to the labour ward and spent the rest of my time working alongside Jayne and Mary, two midwives who represent everything that is first-rate about healthcare in the UK. Honestly, I have had four husbands, no pets and no goldfish, and I have never wiped a baby's bum, let alone cut an umbilical cord and helped with a Caesarean. My parenting experience is zero, my maternal instinct sub-zero and my interest in small things in nappies minimal. Suddenly I had to learn how to sterilise a bottle and teach really uninterested teenage mums how to make up a feed.

The hardest thing for me to learn was humility, treating every expectant mother, no matter how fat, stupid or weird, as the best potential mum in the world. I had to cajole, coax, mop and wipe these women and make the day they were giving birth memorable and special. It was the most demanding work I've ever done - assisting at four births, washing loads of tiny sprogs, mopping floors, inspecting placenta and brewing up endless cups of tea. At the end of a shift I discovered that midwives stay with a woman in labour, working another hour or so, until she has given birth, rather than hand over to someone new. The teamwork and friendliness of the staff were exemplary - after all, it must have been thoroughly irritating to have to explain everything to me at least 10 times a day.

At the end of my stint, I realised I'd never make a midwife, or even a nursing auxiliary - I don't have the patience, or the temperament. But what I did see is that the NHS is made up of dedicated professionals who work extremely hard for lousy money. They have to complete a ludicrous amount of paperwork - every ward could do with a PA, for a start, and pay attention to endless dictates about health and safety. It is the NHS administrators who apportioned budgets, set targets and approve spending strategies which have brought the whole of the NHS into such disrepute. They are the people who are not fit for purpose - not those on the front line. But I don't expect for one moment that any chief executives of bankrupt NHS trusts will quietly sack themselves.

'So You Think You Can Nurse?' is on Five at 8pm Wednesday

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