I could claim that I've long been National Health Service's ideal "customer". Many years ago 1 spent two weeks in a hospital, behind screens and then in a small room, helplessly watching someone very dear to me die in agony and delirium. Since then, I've been phobic about doctors and hospitals, subconsciously — I deduce — feeling that if they once got hold of me, they'd never let me go. It's taken serious things like infections to make me go to the doctor for antibiotics. When I became ill recently I had had little to do with the NHS for a dozen years or more.
Of course I know about the decline in the health service. I'd written about it, helping to draft the WI, pamphlet How to Save the Welfare State that was one of the seeds of the Welfare State Network. But I was not prepared for what I am now experiencing.
Last August I began to feel increasingly ill — persistent earache, nausea, motion sickness on short bus journeys and a serious deterioration in my hearing. I'd had three, two-stage operations on my ears many years ago.
The feeling of general ill-being continued to get worse, as did the earache, which felt to me like a bad infection. My capacity to work decreased; routine thngs became very stressful. As always, I delayed seeking medical help as long as possible.
1 had in the past, as a registered patient with recurrent ear problems, been able to drop in at the ear hospital at Gray's Inn Road, but I had not needed to do so for years. I went. No! I could only be seen if I had a referral from my doctor. I went to the emergency department and a doctor looked in my car: "Wax — get a doctor's referral and come back."
I had neglected to register with a local doctor when 1 moved house four years ago. I went to my old doctor on emergency. He said the ear was completely "occluded" with wax and gave me antibiotics in case there was an infection behind the blockage. I felt a bit better for the antibiotics.
I registered with a local doctor and my ear was syringed. The "wax" wouldn't come out. A second session a week later left the ear still blocked. I was now feeling generally pretty sick, with more or less continuous serious ear pain. An earlier long history of such trouble — I come from a country where there was the most rudimentary of health services and suffered the consequences of neglect, until 1 came to England and benefited from the NHS — had taught me to be matter of fact and stoical about such things.
The earlier operations had produced the effect of recessing the ears closer to my head. 1 now became convinced that the angle of the painful left ear was changing as if it were being pushed out. The ear would bleed a little, intermittently. The doctor gave me ear drops containing peroxide for use on the wax. I felt ill, increasingly so. One Saturday evening at a meeting, after I'd made a vehement 5 minute speech, blood began to ooze continuously out of my car; I could feel blood in my throat and taste and felt it sticky in my mouth. I felt very ill, was in serious pain, and, of course anxious and frightened.
After a very bad night, early the next morning I rang the number I had for
the emergency doctor. On the phone he diagnosed an infection caused by the "poking around" of syringing and arranged for me to get antibiotics from the local Tescos.
My own doctor now discovered - or told me for the first time - that I had a growth in the ear — "polyp". That, covered with wax, was what was blocking the passage. I'd already worked that out for myself. Not the least part of my problem now was uncertainty. Growths can be benign and they can be otherwise. I became convinced it was the worst possibility. I felt "sure" of that for a long time, waiting for an appointment with a specialist at the hospital.
I had been "referred" to Guy's Hospital, for blood tests and X rays. The doctor, a seemingly sympathetic man unhappy with the service he was able to'provide — there is an advert for BUPA in the waiting room — assured me that it was "an urgent case" and that within a couple of weeks I'd hear from St Thomas's/Guy's with an appointment. I did not. Another infection quickly developed. The GP said he was surprised that I had not heard from Guys. But he did nothing about it. I did not hear from them for over 2 months.
I was now feeling very sick all the time. The GP advised pain-killers for the pain. He'd found other things wrong with me and put me on medication, whose side-effects made me feel additionally ill. I ceased to be able to work except intermittently. Still no word from the hospital. Finally a letter came offering me an appointment for the end of April — over six months from my first visit to the doctors. A week later came another letter — they were sorry, but they had to put me back three weeks, to mid-May. And so it stands.
I did my best still to be the NHS's ideal patient. My body found its own do-it-yourself answer to the decline of the NHS: I experienced a sort of spontaneous regeneration. There was continuous heavy discharge from my ear — dried blood mixed with other things. One evening 1 felt a sharp pain and then relief, as though an abscess had burst. A day later I was cleaning the discharge and found it unusually solid and difficult to get out. When I finally got it out 1 had a lump of flesh the size of the top of my lildc finger, looking and feeling like a piece of raw chicken flesh, with a little bloody patch on it where it had broken off. 1 guess it had grown too large for the passage... Though intermittent bleeding continued for three or four weeks, the pain more or less ceased. I experienced a tremendous sense of easing off. There is still discharge. Though I'm inclined to be optimistic that it was benign, I still have no idea, and of course it is impossible not to
It was suggested to me that I seek private medicine. I am not against that in principle: if the NHS is inadequate the right to live entitles you to find an alternative. If things had continued as they were before the "spontaneous operation" 1 might have had to. There is no absolute principle involved; but the idea of it is profoundly distasteful to me. Socialism is class struggle, not life-style, and not personal morality. But for people who spend a lot of time preaching it, socialism is also a morality. One of the lessons of "socialism" in the twen- tieth century is that it has to be.
This is one story of the human meaning of the cumulative destruction of the NHS. Similar stories, and worse stories, already number millions. Those millions and their friends and relatives know what the destruction of the NHS means. In certain cases a delay of months is a death sentence. If the labour movement would give a lead this is an issue that could still change the face of British politics.