After my partner was hit by a bus, I saw the truth about the NHS – good and bad

If you haven’t had your life saved, your broken limb mended or chronic disease managed, you don’t know what it really means to have a health system free at the point of use

Tina Nielsen
Thursday 05 July 2018 19:23
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NHS at 70: A timeline of the National Health Service and its crisis

The NHS, revered by so many yet so underfunded – and turning 70 today – has saved lives and changed lives since its inception. When disaster struck almost two and a half years ago, and I had to enter that parallel universe, it changed mine too.

On a February night after an evening out with friends, my partner Jo was pulled under a bus and lost her lower left leg. Our lives changed in the blink of an eye.

Few people expect to go into battle with a London bus and come out alive, but she didn’t have another scratch on her body. We always say it could have been worse, but really it was bad enough. As a former Olympian with a brilliant career teaching judo, it was catastrophic for her.

It is to the credit of the doctors, nurses and physiotherapists that she returned to her job as a judo instructor on a prosthetic leg after six months. They put her back together physically, mentally and emotionally – and somehow they instilled in us a total belief that this would be possible from day one.

The national debate often reduces the health service to an intangible behemoth – inefficient and expensive. A place where trollies are piled up in corridors, waiting lists forever growing and operations delayed. But we shouldn't lose sight of the positivity behind this negative narrative.

Our experience was extraordinary because of the people we met on this journey of discovery, starting with the paramedic who attended to us in the street and who later tracked Jo down on the ward to find out how she was doing.

Standing in the A&E resuscitation room of the Royal London Hospital trying to take it all in was a hugely challenging moment, but I was struck by the number of people in the room – every kind of medical expert was there to assess the injuries and decide the best course of action.

In the middle of the madness, the consultant in charge took the time to sit me down and explain in no uncertain terms the gravity of the situation, while still making sure to deliver the message with kindness and compassion.

It really blew me away, this kindness from everybody I came into contact with, from the surgeons and nurses to the porters and the cleaners. Not only did they provide world-class care to my partner, but for six weeks I made daily visits and not one day went by without somebody asking me how I was coping. That meant the world.

Our experience was of doctors who went the extra mile every day – who always had time to talk and who reassured us and encouraged us as we came to terms with the impact of the accident. One surgeon spoke to us about how the accident shouldn’t change our lives, rather it should be a bump in the road. It was moments like this that spurred us on – they made us believe we could get through it.

From my point of observation as the relative of a trauma survivor, I witnessed nurses being assaulted, physically and verbally; having meds thrown at them by patients and being berated by relatives and friends. They always resisted the temptation to talk back and never went home on time – and with hospitals like the Royal Free making the decision to sell off nursing accommodation to property developers while they take home salaries that forces them to live in zone 6, they are likely to get home even later in future.

NHS at 70: A timeline of the National Health Service and its crisis

It is heartening to see that the special birthday this week has prompted such an outpouring of affection. But the feel-good glow won’t keep the NHS running. The recent announcement of more funding was a good start, but hardly enough. With the pressures of an ageing population, rising drugs cost and whatever unknowns Brexit is set to inflict, it will surely need more.

If you haven’t had your life saved, your broken limb mended or chronic disease managed, you don’t know what it really means to have a health system free at the point of use. The wonderful inclusive NHS is there for everybody – young and old, rich and poor – when they need it most. A service based on how unwell they are, not what they can afford.

Jo and I will rely on excellent healthcare for the rest of our lives, but had it not been for the surgeons who took a gamble and saved her knee during the surgery, the nurses who acted as carers, friends and social workers rolled into one and the physiotherapists who taught her to walk again, she might not have been able to do her job, let alone live a normal life again.

The staff who helped us through the most difficult time will forever be a part of our lives. But they deserve more than our affection and gratitude; they should have the support and resources they need. Well-run public services cost money. We all love the NHS – but isn’t it time we ask ourselves what it’s really worth to us?

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