When I gave up smoking, I did so because I was admitted to hospital after two and a half months of severe pain in my right foot, which, in the last fortnight before my hospital admission, had become so excruciatingly painful that I literally couldn’t sleep. I wrote about it at the time, in an article entitled, “Intimations of Mortality” — hence the reference in the title above, as I revisit this crucial period of my life.
I had developed a blood disorder, which had manifested itself as a blood clot, cutting off the blood supply to my right foot — first to my big toe, and then to my middle toe. It took two months for me to be admitted to hospital, but, when that happened, doctors and consultants in St. Thomas’s Hospital saved my toes, and I was discharged after spending about a week and half being pumped full of drugs and gazing across the River Thames at the Houses of Parliament (as the photo above shows).
Within three months, my toes had healed, and I contributed to keeping myself alive by giving up smoking, and, I think, by somehow “managing” the indignation I feel about the injustices of the world, an indignation that had led to me discovering, in my late 30s, that my calling was to be an independent journalist and activist — on civil liberties, human rights abuses, and social justice.
I’d like to say I’m “better,” but that wouldn’t be true. After a year eating biscuits I decided being fit was a good idea and began cycling and taking photographs of London on an almost daily basis. This has been a revelation to me, primarily as it has convinced me that we are meant to be outdoors — whatever the weather — and are not meant to be cooped up in buildings.
However, although I have been feeling fitter than I did since the natural high of youth wore off, sometime in my 30s, I am not “well.” I have a chronic blood disease, I am on blood thinners, and I will soon have to embark on further medication, which, it seems, will not be fun.
I’m sharing this with you, my friends, not just because March 18 is such a significant day for me, but also because I hope it provides a small grain of assistance to anyone trying to overcome addictions.
Primarily, however, I’m sharing it because I wish, very publicly, to defend the NHS as the single most important institution in the UK, and one that I will fight to save. I should add that my own experience is not the only reason that I will always fight for the NHS. In 1999, my son was born prematurely, and both he and his mother owe their lives to the NHS, and to doctors and surgeons and consultants and specialists and nurses in King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, so in a very real sense we are all here today because of the doctors and nurses of the NHS.
I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of an NHS that doesn’t exist. No one knew at first what was wrong with me, and GPs and specialists failed to work it out or to deal with it adequately until I ended up in St. Thomas’s. This was not their fault, as such. Illnesses and diseases rarely come with tags attached explaining what they are, and mistakes can be made that are not deliberate or the result of incompetence.
However, since I ended up in St. Thomas’s two years ago, the care I have received, the monitoring of my condition on a regular basis, and the fruits of the ongoing research into blood diseases, have all provided an excellent demonstration of the NHS as a world-class provider of healthcare.
Moreover, the NHS does all this as a taxpayer-funded insurance system for everyone, in which those trying to save lives do so, for the most part, because it is a service — one that, obviously, needs funding to make it work, but not a business.
Every time I visit the blood clinic at Lewisham Hospital to have my blood levels tested, or the haematology departments in St. Thomas’s and Guy’s, where my case is regularly reviewed by specialists, I am reminded of how the NHS provides this service, and I am enormously relieved that, because we all pay for it through our taxes, it is free at the point of entry and exit.
Here in the UK, the Tories want to destroy the NHS, as they want to destroy the taxpayer-funded state provision of almost all services (one exception being their own salaries and expenses). It is important that these plans are resisted. In the US, where almost twice as much of the country’s GDP is spent on health as in the UK, the world of private healthcare insurance is riddled with fraud, and tens of millions of the poorest and the weakest members of society — those unable to afford insurance — have their lives ruined by crippling debt if they get ill. As a result, the “care” that drives a universal system is constantly at odds with — and more often than not crushed by — the cold reality of healthcare as a business.
Here, the system works as insurance was designed to work — everyone puts in, except those exempt from taxes, and everyone benefits if they get ill. Whether you are unemployed or the leader of a political party, if you have a disabled child, for example, the NHS will be there for you.
The NHS currently faces the gravest threat in its entire 65-year existence — from the Tories, who are currently attempting to sneak through secondary legislation associated with their wretched Health and Social Care Act (passed last year) which will make it mandatory for the Clinical Commissioning Groups of GPs (who take over 80 percent of the NHS’s budget on April 1) to open up almost all NHS services to competition — in other words, to the encroachments of private companies, whose concern is with profits rather than health.
Although over 350,000 people signed a 38 Degrees petition resisting these changes, which prompted Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb to state that the key regulations on competition in the NHS would be rewritten, the Tories cannot be trusted, and there will be is a lobby of Parliament on Wednesday March 26, beginning at 12 noon, to protest about the regulations. Please attend if you can, and also see the Facebook page here.
This is not the only threat to the NHS. The health service’s own medical directors are also engaged in a mission to destroy services, through cuts that will see the disappearance of dozens of hospitals, on the deluded basis that they are focusing on achieving the highest standards of clinical care at fewer sites.
These proposals are affecting Lewisham Hospital, and many other hospitals across London, and I am involved in the campaigns to save these hospitals from destruction, primarily on the basis that, although the senior NHS officials are correct to focus on making the best possible services available, and are to be congratulated on establishing a system whereby certain emergencies — heart attacks and strokes, for example — are best dealt with at specialist centres covering a number of hospitals, their reorganisation and rationalisation is going too far, resulting in the closure of A&E Departments serving hundreds of thousands of people and the knock-on effect on other widely-used services, including maternity and children’s care.
At Lewisham Hospital (which is being sacrificed illegally under the cover of legislation designed to deal with the financial problems of a neighbouring NHS trust), this will mean that there will be just one A&E for the 750,000 people in three boroughs (Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley), at a hospital located on a remote heath in Woolwich), as well as the resultant knock-on effect on other frontline services. In Lewisham, for example, a borough with a population of 270,000 (the size of Brighton, Newcastle or Hull), 90 percent of mothers (currently around 4,000 a year) will no longer be able to give birth in the borough, as only those who are regarded as a low risk (no first-time mothers, and no older mothers) can be provided maternity services without emergency back-up.
Not only is there no spare capacity in neighbouring hospitals for the tens of thousands of emergencies (out of the more than 100,000 adults and children who visit Lewisham’s A&E every year) — and the thousands of mothers — who will be turned away on an annual basis, but these plans also involve a fundamental dishonesty. If it can be established that more money is needed for the NHS, the people of Britain will, I am sure, pay more, but for that that conversation to take place, we need politicians of the calibre of Nye Bevan, the health secretary at the time of the founding of the NHS, who gave those of us defending the NHS our great rallying cry: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.”
Note: For further information, please visit the website of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and see my archive of articles. Please also note that there will be a London-wide “Defend London’s NHS” demonstration in central London on Saturday May 18, beginning at 12 noon in Jubilee Gardens in Waterloo (by the London Eye), followed by a march to the Department of Health and Parliament. See here for the flier on the Keep Our NHS Public website.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign”, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.