My dad died a year ago this week, just four months after being diagnosed with cancer caused by fleeting exposure to asbestos during a student summer job decades ago.
He had been an active and healthy 62-year-old, and the whirlwind of his rapid decline was a horrendous experience with which our family is still coming to terms. There are few silver linings to a tale like this, but one is that he died at home, having spent his last weeks surrounded by family (including his first, newborn grandchild) and with friends constantly popping in.
There were more smiles than you might expect. None of that would have been possible without the help of the wonderful district nurses who visited every day, often more than once. They performed the medical functions necessary to make him as comfortable as possible, but as important was their support and guidance to me, my mum and siblings, who had been thrust, clueless, into the role of carers.
I have had a glimpse, therefore, of what we stand to lose if our district nursing system does collapse, as the Royal College of Nursing warns today. Families like mine will lose that vital support, as will the many elderly people in our ageing population for whom district nurses make the difference between being able to stay in their own homes and not.
Their demise would be the demise of a real slice of humanity within our society, for their work is often more about making the best of things for the sick and frail than about medicine. But it would also be a false economy, with people pushed into hospitals, hospices and care homes.
‘Not enough district nurses’ maybe doesn’t seem as dramatic and headline-worthy as ‘not enough cancer drugs’, but sometimes the drugs don’t work, and these are the people we will always need to pick up the pieces.