What I Learned While Nearly Dying

My NHS experience, with a life-threatening problem, was an encouraging one – apart from the other patients.

There’s some journalistic research you’d really never do by choice. Spending four days in an NHS hospital with a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, for example.

Unfortunately it was out of my hands. I fell off a horse, one thing led to another, and suddenly there I was, lying in what I imagine is a reasonably typical NHS ward being tended by all those multi-ethnic nurses and hard-pressed doctors you read about in the newspapers but rarely encounter yourself because in order to do so you have to be quite seriously ill.

So: what have I learned?

First, that it’s not as bad as you’ve long feared, especially not for anyone hardened by the experience of the military, prison or — in my own case — being at an English prep school in the 1970s. Yes, it’s all a bit spartan, but the staff from the porters and cleaners to the consultants were a delight, and I grew very fond of my multinational assortment of nurses from Poland, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Ghana and south India, who couldn’t have been harder-working, jollier, more competent or more caring.

Also, the routine and the retro ambiance can become weirdly seductive: the morning clean-up team who’ll either shave and wash you in bed or give you the towels and shower gel to do it yourself (NHS razors are horribly blunt, though); the jolly dinner-lady type who comes round and round with tea, forgetting every time that you don’t take sugar; the endless blood-pressure and temperature checks; the dispensation of your medicines in those little plastic cups; the school food; the hideous but oh-so-practical, one-size-fits-all pyjamas. If you were healthy you’d be appalled by everything: the noise, the light, the smell, the Soviet basicness. But when you’re ill, there’s almost nowhere you’d rather be and you feel in very safe hands.

That’s the good side. Now the bad — and it’s so bad I’m surprised it isn’t more of a national scandal. We read a lot about a service stretched to breaking point but what few of us grasp — I didn’t until I saw it myself — is perhaps the main contributory factor to this: bed after bed occupied by elderly, often Alzheimer’s-afflicted patients who simply don’t belong in wards designed to treat acute, short-term conditions.

I don’t mean to be heartless here. Clearly we need to find some way of ensuring that our elderly, especially those with no family to care for them, live out their twilight years free from misery and discomfort. But the place for these people is a dedicated home run by carers, not an expensive-to-run NHS ward with highly trained staff and valuable equipment designed primarily for emergencies.

A pulmonary embolism isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you but it’s pretty bad. On my first night, as I lay wracked with pain that sometimes penetrated even my morphine delirium, I could not but be conscious of the skeletal, rambling old geezer opposite me spraying his entire bed area in explosive diarrhoea.

Read the rest at the Spectator.