It is the next day, April 2020. It has been 36 hours since my operation. Today, my brother is coming to collect me and drive me 150 miles to his house.
I am getting ready.
Washed and got dressed without falling over: check.
Nurse has kindly put my shoes and socks on (I can’t bend down): check.
Fresh pillow case to carry my leg drain and vacuum dressing battery pump: check.
Extra tight TED stockings to help my leg: check.
Taken an extra dose of morphine to offset the pain of the long car journey: check.
Gentle amble around the ward and successful yay!-I-can-manage-stairs test: check.
Hospital bag packed: check.
I lie, replete, on my bed, resting. There is not much else to do in hospital. The previous day I had discovered I could lie on my non-operation side and, with a bit of arranging of drain tubing and battery pack cord, it’s quite comfortable. I am smug about this. Small wins.
I enjoyed my previous day in hospital. Always a people-watcher, it was fun to see the surgeons and their teams sweep onto the ward to see their patients, juniors like ducklings paddling to keep up, frantic scribbling in the notes. It was nice not to be one of them, for a change.
It was nice to have people bring you meals and tea and biscuits and take them away again. It was nice to chat to people. It was good to practice walking up and down the stairs, the day-to-day hospital quieted due to covid, it’s usual bustle now an aching, cavernous silence. The vast atrium echoed to my footsteps.
Most of all, it was utterly humbling to be on the receiving end of the real NHS. An NHS powered by tea and biscuits, yes, but most of all kindness.
I cannot over-state how important kindness is when you are a patient.
I knew kindness was important but I did not understand before I was a patient myself just HOW important it was.
It is the thing. It is The Thing. Yes, good clinical care is irreplaceable – receiving the correct treatment and management is obviously going to make the most difference to my survival. But kindness comes a very close second. In fact, I would say it has its own therapeutic benefit that is as powerful in its own way as receiving said correct management.
And the staff of the NHS – underpaid, under-supported, run ragged, underfunded, abused, pressured, human – they just keep turning up trumps. I have had a handful of experiences of unkindness and irritable words in this last year from stressed NHS staff but overwhelmingly – overwhelmingly – despite the pressures, I have been treated with kindness. The radiographer who walked me from CT back to the oncology centre as I was feeling unwell. The kitchen staff bringing me tea and biscuits. The admin staff ringing, making and changing appointments for me. The nurses checking on me, helping me, finding me places to lie down when I was feeling wobbly, letting me cry, laughing with me over silly things, reading me bits from the paper during treatment, singing along to songs with me. My doctors, a large team from junior to senior, always accessible, always willing to work with me, always doing their best for me, never making me feel stupid for any daft worries I may have. I know they all have my back. I know we’re a team. I know they really genuinely want what’s best for me. And I know they will always fight for me, no matter what.
The people who staff the frontlines of the NHS – the porters and domestics and pharmacists and healthcare assistants and radiographers and receptionists and admin staff and caterers and cleaners and physiotherapists and nurses and occupational therapists and doctors of all grades and support workers and volunteers – are extraordinary. The NHS is extraordinary. I know it has been said and I know it can come across as a tired trope but I cannot imagine how this last year would have been if I had to pay for treatment; if the above people had to think about billing me and not just about helping me. What a very different relationship that would make it.
Instead, I have a relationship built on care and kindness (and some solid evidence-based medicine!). It means I can relax when I walk into the oncology centre. It means I don’t have to worry about what kind of reception I will get when I pick up the phone to call my specialist nurse with a question. It means I can focus on doing everything I can to get better.
And it, quite literally, means I will not die in my prime from being too poor to afford cancer treatment.
Dear, tired, stupendous NHS – I salute you. Thank you for keeping me alive so far.