“The CT scan shows that you’re absolutely fine,” the doctor in the Emergency Assessment Unit at the local hospital told me with a reassuring smile. “You can go home.” I was ecstatic.
I am 33, felt strong, fit and well – I had been running less than 24 hours before – but my worried mum insisted I go to A&E after I woke up struggling to walk and with weakness down the right side of my body two weeks ago on Saturday. I knew she was overreacting, I thought; I had just been burning the candle at both ends a little too much.
My smugness and the unwavering sense of immortality that you still have when you are relatively young was short-lived when the doctor came rushing back to my bed before I could even call my mum to tell her the good news. I could never have foreseen the blow she delivered. She told me there’d been a mistake and the CT scan had in fact revealed a black spot on my brain.
How the bloody hell, I said to myself, can you miss that? I still don’t know if my scan was misread – doctors are mere humans under colossal pressure – or if someone else’s brain had been mistaken for mine on the system, but I was admitted with a suspected ischaemic stroke.
At 33, I needed the NHS more than I’ve ever needed anything. But over the six hellish days I spent in hospital, where the time was broken up only by a series of uncomfortable tests, desolate mental breakdowns and agonising phases of waiting, I could see how the burden of squeezed resources was hitting.
I’m worried about the health service, and I’m not alone. Research published last week by Ipsos Mori showed the top concern of young people is the NHS. And we are right to be concerned.
Philip Hammond’s one-off £2.8bn funding Budget promise for the health service in England wasn’t enough to calm fears over what the future holds, as it fell short of the £4bn claimed urgently necessary by NHS England boss Simon Stevens. It was also less than the additional £3bn set aside over the next two years for Brexit, and that’s without considering the pledge of “further sums if and when needed”.
The black cloud of supposed creeping privatisation; the burden of an ageing population; an almost 90 per cent nosedive in the number of EU nurses and midwives wanting to work in Britain since the Brexit vote; and the absence of the £350m weekly cash injection promised on the battle bus would all suggest the worst is yet to come.
But the time I spent in hospital meant I saw first-hand how the unprecedented pressure on the devoted people on the front line of our health service is already hammering their best intentions.
I experienced well-meaning doctors making trivial mistakes that had the potential to be extremely dangerous. One performed an unsuccessful lumbar puncture on me without applying a fenestrated drape to provide a sterile area over my spine, while on a busy ward where infection was present – one patient in the same bay had a urinary tract infection.
Another put my name down for a procedure that was meant for another patient. It wasn’t until a porter had wheeled me from my bed to another part of the hospital where the procedure was due to be performed that both the clinician receiving me and I realised the mistake. I’m extremely thankful I could still speak, which is frequently not the case for stroke survivors.
I fundamentally believe these errors are not down to incompetency, but are a result of relentless stress.
I saw the impact of delayed transfers of care, which are said to be at record levels, when a woman in her nineties in the bed next to me on a specialist stroke ward said she had been there for three weeks with a chest infection. And when I later learned the damage to my brain was more likely the result of a chronic neurological disease rather than stroke, I questioned a doctor about why I’d not been moved off a packed stroke ward and was met with a sympathetic response that cited the “bed crisis”.
I saw how much hospitals rely on agency workers with some, unmistakable in their company-branded uniforms, on most shifts highlighting the consequence of an NHS that is haemorrhaging professionals as the Royal College of Nursing keeps up the fight for what it says is fair pay. A daughter visiting one of my bed neighbours also told me that on one shift every nurse who had come to treat her mother was from an agency.
I am not only concerned about the NHS but also sad. I am despondent about the future of the eager and unbelievably kind student doctors – one of which in particular I will never forget for supporting me emotionally through some pretty unpleasant procedures. I hope they don’t ever lose their enthusiasm for making a difference to and saving people’s lives in the face of increasing stress.
I’m also fearful about what will be of the NHS as my children grow up and my parents grow old. Once again proving wrong the notion that millennials are narcissistic wretches lacking conscience, a heartening thread responding to a tweet from an investor who said he found it hard to believe the NHS is the biggest concern for young people confirmed I’m not an isolated case.
People responded, some angrily, to the suggestion that young, healthy people have no reason to worry about the NHS, with their own stories of how friends, relatives and loved ones desperately need a strong health service both for care and employment. This thread made clear that the NHS binds many of us together through a shared gratitude or reliance on it and crushed the abhorrent idea that the human right to health should be dependent on access to wealth. Ultimately, it’s all of us who’d suffer if the NHS were brought to its knees.