There’s plenty of talk about the NHS at the moment, and it made me think about my own experiences, starting pretty much from its day zero.
Now, the catalogue of NHS interventions in my 72 years is just too heavy to contemplate in one mouthful, so I thought I’d break it down.
This is, as the title suggests, my personal take on 1948-1988 or so.
I was born shortly before the NHS was, in 1947, in one of its predecessor outfits, St James’s Hospital, Balham – or Battersea as it says on my Birth Certificate. This was one of the LCC’s hospitals that was to become part of the bedrock of the NHS a year or so later.
Strike one – Checking out St James’s now, I can see that it is part of a housing estate.
NHS Safe in this government’s hands? I don’t think so.
I am about a year older than the NHS and I’m not sure that it will outlive me. I profoundly hope it will, and would be terribly sad if it died before I do or, more likely becomes some kind of bastard, private sector, foster child.
Still back to the beginning; 1948, what a time to start a National Health Service! Nye on impossible, Bevan’s opponents must have thought. The huge post-war boom in the birth rate, with babies popping out all over the place, terrible shortages of just about everything after the war years, yet here was the Labour Party pushing ahead with this truly amazing, radical, forward looking, optimistic, can do initiative.
JC please note.
Clearly, I don’t remember much about my momentous day in 1947, but I do know, anecdotally, that I set a length record for the hospital at 22 inches. Head to toe that is, just in case you were wondering.
I should have stopped then, while I was ahead, I guess. It certainly would have saved the state some money, and that seems to be what it is all about these days, isn’t it?
As a first child, I imagine that I had sporadic contact with health professionals over my first year, and again, anecdotally, I understand that I was not all that keen on breast feeding, so ended up being the grateful recipient of National Dried milk. I don’t know why, but I do remember the big white tins of this stuff with blue writing. Maybe my mum used it for my brother four years later.
Blimey, this is turning into a right trip down memory lane. It has reminded me of the NHS Orange Juice that we used to get from the baby clinic. Oh, I loved that stuff!
Anyway, back to the NHS. My next real memory of hospitals and the like was being in the South London Hospital for Women and Children in Clapham, having my tonsils out. This hospital was very unusual as it was staffed only by women, although at three years old or so, I didn’t actually realise this at the time. In spite of this almost unique feature, the experience was not nice at all, and the smell of the rubber facemask that they put on to administer the anaesthetic still lingers in my memory. I also remember ward orderlies “walking” three-legged frame things across the floor towards me, being sick in a kidney bowl after my operation, and later being fed jelly and ice cream. Funny the things that stick in your mind.
Strike 2 – Checking this out, the South London Hospital for Women and Children is now a Tesco store with apartments above.
Thinking about it, I must have been circumcised at some stage before that, but thankfully I have no memory of it and have no idea why it was done. I suspect it was just medically fashionable at the time. Genital mutilation for goodness knows what reason. I don’t know where this procedure was carried out, but, on balance, I rather wish it hadn’t been.
Then to primary school and a few minor medical interventions – cracked ribs, a huge splinter that ran down through my thumbnail and into my thumb. It snapped inside when I tried to bend the instantly swollen digit, and then took weeks to come out. Lots of trips to St James’s casualty department for regular kaolin poultices to draw it out. Seemed odd and scary to me at the time but it worked eventually.
I got to be quite a regular at various outpatient clinics over the years having test for this and that, so I guess I justified any investment my parents made in the Health Service on my behalf. I recall visiting St Georges in Tooting in a vain attempt to identify some kind of stomach disorder, and a very posh trip up to Guy’s in London for something or other, but my hospital of choice as a child was always St James’s.
Our family Doctor; you didn’t have GPs in those days, just a family doctor, dropped in to treat me and my brother for all sorts of childhood illnesses, measles, mumps, German measles, chicken pox, and so on and I particularly remember being strangely proud because I had mumps on more than one occasion. That was pretty spectacular because I looked like a child version of an adult Edward Heath, not that any of us knew what he looked like at that time. But you get the picture: my head went straight down from my ears to my collarbones without a hint of neckiness.
The point is that whenever I needed help, the Health Service was there for me.
There were inoculations, immunisations, tetanus jabs, antibiotics, X-Rays, and all sorts of amazing things that I took for granted because I’d never lived in a Britain without them, but my parents remembered that it wasn’t always so. It was a constant wonder to them that we could all afford to be ill and get treated.
My mum had to attend a maternity Clinic at the Weir Road Hospital, Balham before my brother was born, after his very existence was discovered when my mother was having unrelated surgery for a stomach ulcer at, you guessed it, St James’s. A pretty scary episode all round.
Strike 3 – Weir Road Hospital is now a housing development.
As we got a little older our mum became sickly and developed what the doctors called a weak chest. The upshot of this was that she had a spell in hospital most years suffering from pneumonia, bronchitis, pleurisy, and various other chest infections. This usually involved two or three weeks in hospital followed by a period of convalescence in Surrey at the cutely named Pease Pottage Convalescent Home, or on the Kent coast, in Deal. All this courtesy of the NHS.
We got quite used to missing our mum for a few weeks every year or so.
Strike 4 – Pease Pottage Convalescent Home is now a “VIP” housing development.
I can’t find any reliable trace of the Deal Convalescent site so who knows?
As I got older I spent a couple of weeks in St James’s with a serious ear infection that they hadn’t been able to clear up in the outpatients clinic and my brother had various health interventions before the real biggie when our dad was diagnosed as having a brain tumour. I remember his early symptoms: losing balance, slurring speech, memory loss, loss of physical dexterity, and I carried a fear of developing these myself for years. It was a protracted illness involving a number of surgical interventions, at a number of different hospitals with varying degrees of speciality, including the Atkinson Morley Hospital in Wimbledon. He finished up back at St James’s where he ended his days aged 53, leaving the three of us to get on with it.
Strike 5 – Atkinson Morley Hospital is now a housing development
I got married and moved across to South East London and my brother and mum followed a bit later. This meant a change of NHS base for all of us!
My first wife and I had our first child in St Alfedge’s Hospital in Greenwich. This is the closest I have been to being demolished with a hospital as it was being knocked down while my wife was there. The end of the maternity ward was covered in plastic tarpaulins and we could see daylight beyond them.
Strike 6 – St Alfedge’s Hospital is now a mixed development.
My other children were born in various hospitals in Bromley, Lewisham, and at Guys at London Bridge.
Miss 1 – Attempts to close parts of Lewisham Hospital were foiled recently by major street protests
I later became infected with meningitis and ended up in Hither Green isolation hospital – followed by months of home rest.
Strike 7 – Hither Green Hospital is now a housing development.
My mum fell off a stool and broke her hip and that was the beginning of the end for her. She underwent repeated surgery in Greenwich Hospital, which had taken over from St Alfedge’s, and has now also been demolished. She later died there from Bowel Cancer after a protracted stay.
Strike 8 – Greenwich Hospital has now been demolished
Sounds like quite a litany doesn’t it but by this stage I was still only about forty!
I have divorced, remarried, extended my family, and made extensive additional use of the brilliant NHS service since this time, but the point I am trying to make is that my family and I would never have got as far as they did, or we have, without The National Health Service.
Eight hospitals that have been essential in maintaining or extending our lives or at least allowing us to die with some dignity, have been swept away by accountants and politicians. Sure, The NHS didn’t get everything right, but it was always there for us when we needed it.
Our lives would undoubtedly have been poorer, shorter, and meaner without it and I fear for my children and their children.
These places were local. They were part of their communities. Sure they were not always very well run, but they were not run for profit.
The people in them wanted them to work because of a calling, and I’m sure that is just about all that keeps our system ticking over now.
Every time the private sector creams off some little cherry of an activity, it makes the rest of it harder to deliver.
I would ask you to take a look at your own life and think about the contribution that our National Health Service has made to you, your family and friends. Then, let’s all make sure that we keep on fighting for it, for all of it, for all of us, and for those to come.