Well I’ve been in the hospital for a few days; – it’s my first time, stopping in. Previously I’ve only visited to get x-rays, scans, and enjoyed one day stands with broken or cut bits. This time I’m hoping for a car bumper sticker like Alexi Sayle used to talk about – “I’ve been to hospital !”

Appreciate the NHS
Appreciate the NHS

I ain’t tracked down my sticker yet, but it’s been quite interesting, (albeit a bit painful ‘cos of the cellulitis I acquired over the last weekend at home). The most interesting bit has been the fact that the tv was bust, with dodgy signal, so we’ve been having a lot of talk, banter, encouragement, empathy and general piss-taking amongst the four boys in here. I would highly recommend NHS has TV – free wards, same as the railways have quiet carriage (for that matter they used to have smoking carriages, but of course, the righteous have it entirely their own way on that).

I’m not going to say which hospital, but it is in Scotland, (and often criticised by local press), and I’m not going to mention any people, except to say that yes, there are characters and caricatures in all the ways you could expect to develop, or be enshrined in an institution which thrives on regulations and niches and specialities. Where I used to work was a large national company Scottish Water, formed from an amalgamation of three regional authorities, but you see, nobody ever elegised water companies (or the Watter Trade, as m’learned brother Andi calls it) in the same way as the “Carry-On” films did with the Health Service.

James Robertson Justice may no longer be playing the genial, irascible but omnipotent and omniscient consultant, and Hattie Jacques not exercising the steely eyed raptor’s vigilance of the Matron, but the roles are amply filled by modern counterparts. It is actually quite funny in a way to see the very slight timorous deference that is accorded the senior doc, one of whom, I saw in a wry moment, actually turning away from the conflab over a patient’s current sitrep among junior doctors, exuding an air of it being something rather beneath him. All good role-play, reinforcing hierarchies which are necessary where decisions are to be taken, responsibilities allotted, and indeed, shouldered.

In the meantime, in the background and all around us, people who have got up at ungodly hours to don slightly differentiated uniforms busy themselves with moving victuals, beds, paperwork, medicines, pee bottles, bodies, working and otherwise, to where they are destined to arrive in the grand scheme of things. The order prevails; cleaning is meticulous and done with dedication extraordinary to my mind; that of an idiosyncratic Yorkshire man who is likely to be happy with changing pants and socks daily, t-shirts etc every few days (but only if they’re mucky), and showers maybe once a week, if I feel like it, but definitely at New Year, whether I need it or not !

I’m not claiming any novel insight here, I’m just relating experiences and thoughts at the time. It can feel unworldly at times, phantasms moving in the night, listening for coughs, sighs, alert to sleeplessness; caring about the uncared-for life. Every one of them in some way is expected to be able to deal with frightened and worried people, heartbroken people, idiots, those the worse for wear or from toil. It is highly skilled, intuitive and analytical work, done against a background of personal pain, loss, misery, lost hopes. The many disappointments, and fears, of a generation that has come to expect the seamlessly perfect “Golden Delicious” life.

I cannot in all honesty say there are not people who seem to do a good day’s work every week (sic), that there may be little empire builders, that there may be some, almost unemployable elsewhere but difficult to excise from here, or that misreading or mistakes are not made. All the constantly recycled “Daily Rant” criticisms we read, often, though not always, from supporters of privatising medicine.

But everyone I came into contact with exercised their own personal sense of duty in carrying out complex, painful, compassionate, time-consuming and uncalled-for care in their work. Sometimes a very few words or acts of empathy, admonition, consolation, encouragement or humour, (gallows and belly busting), at the right moment, can change the texture and memory of an anxious moment or a personal tragedy. These are the skills of a lifetime, not easily spotted by the unwitting, the unobservant, or the thick skinned.

Oftentimes people can’t resist a moan about their hospital food. Usually one discovers these are people who can’t, won’t or don’t cook for themselves. A perfect looking pizza, a symmetrical lavish cake, a colourful washed and bagged salad etc, all bought, are often the punctuation marks in their lives, unlike the stodgy failures and burnt pans of the real world cook who delights the more in small successes, or the oft-practised triumph.

We are simultaneously the healthiest and unhealthiest generation in history; the first due to advances in nutrition, education, public health – things like clean water and sewerage. The latter due largely I feel, to our taking careless advantage of the benefits of technology, food production, and the mixed blessing of the ability to do things far beyond the dreams and aspirations of even the most far-sighted of our forebears.

One of the cheery nurses (who paradoxically gets more sleep when she’s on shift than when off as her young son will wake her before her alarm would for work !  Aaaagh !), rather disconsolately comments on the newspaper’s “revelations” that “the NHS is putting patients at risk”.  Well, excuse me, but for my money it is actually The Public themselves who are “putting patients at risk” by their own headlong stupidity in cramming pizzas and sucrose jolts into their systems, while either semi-comatose on sofas, or pursuing high octane shopping and driving.

So please, stop bleating on in this risk-averse way about the NHS being the root of a problem; it is at least as much you, me and the all the rest who persistently put ourselves at risk and expect the NHS to be able, ready and willing to repair any damage we may choose to inflict on ourselves. Choose your own poisons by all means, but please accept the consequences of your choices with humility and candour.



Of course, to underline that last sentence, it had to happen; a new admission, an affable family man with an amazing 25 grandchildren, and he’s not even that old ! Being made aware of the NHS Scotland regulations, he went downstairs with his wife and had a covert ‘last’ smoke in the car park. He came back wheezing badly and enjoyed some banter with us lads entrenched in this small ward before eating, then requesting to see a junior doctor about some nicotine patches to help through his stay. He had his consultation and duly got the assistance asked for. He then snuck down the stairs to the car park again, and again came back wheezing. No criticism; his choice.

What was badly wrong was when he crept at midnight, into the bathroom and lit up. I, in bed on an intravenous drip, smelled it instantly, and on his exit from the bathroom told him quietly that I thought he was foolish because it would be easily detected from some distance. I heard a quiet chuckle in response. Nursing staff duly appeared in minutes and established the source, warning sternly of the dangers of lighting up in an environment where inflammable oxygen is widely used to assist patients.

I couldn’t care less about his forays into the car park (taking some effort on his part), to assuage the weed’s need for control. What is not acceptable is putting his room mates, the ward, and the hospital at risk of a potential hazard. He admitted the misdeed, but still put at risk his own chance of continuing treatment for known afflictions, and of remaining a living grandfather.

Everyone in this room has smoked for decades, we all use patches and sleep to get through, so we struggle on, trying to contain our poisonous yearnings, balanced against our responsibility to others in the hospital.

Here endeth the sermon.

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