It all happened so quickly. A persistent temperature developed into a pain down my right side and I was becoming breathless. I went to the out-of-hours GP unit at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, expecting to be given some antibiotics. However, within minutes I found myself rushed round to the Accident and Emergency department where I was wired to machines, given drips and put on oxygen.
Bacterial pneumonia had triggered sepsis which was patrolling around my body looking for mischief. It had reached my heart and set it racing at an unsustainable rate, so much so that the doctors had to stop my heart and shock it back into life in the hope that it would find its normal rhythm. Thankfully, this cardiac re-boot worked. Eventually, I was taken to intensive care where I was to spend a number of days.
During my time in intensive care, I slept a great deal but the nights, undoubtedly fed by hallucinations that can be part of the illness, had an eerie quality. The room was sparsely lit and I was aware of ghost-like figures quietly but purposefully moving around in the gloom. Three particular images have remained with me.
First, the sounds piercing the silence. The ‘pings’ and ‘bongs’ of the machines attached to patients in the ward were particularly prominent at night. Their regularity was good news, announcing that all was well. At one point, it sounded as though they were having conversations with each other, maybe about the patients whose lives they were monitoring. It was a boring, unexciting conversation: but our lives depended upon their lack of excitement.
The second image came when I awoke in the middle of the night. A woman in the bed opposite was nearing the end of her life. A nurse was sitting beside her, making her comfortable and gently caressing her arm. I could have been watching a grand-daughter telling a much-loved grandmother that she was not alone as she was about to pass from this world to the next: or it could have been Mother Theresa of Calcutta preparing and reassuring a fellow pilgrim she was loved and special in God’s eyes and would soon be receiving a hero’s welcome. Either way, it was very moving and I felt privileged to be witnessing an icon of loving and caring.
The third image was of two Filipino nurses tending a man who was clearly distraught and uncomfortable. As they were helping him, they began naturally, spontaneously and quietly singing a Filipino song. The singing calmed my fellow patient and I realised that it was calming me too. They left him relaxed, comfortable and ready for the next struggles he would be facing. When one of the nurses later came to me, I commented on how beautiful it was to hear her and her colleague sing. She told me that she had trained as a nurse in the UK, but singing (as a form of therapy) was not on the curriculum. ‘What a pity,’ I commented.
I have always been a great admirer of the NHS. As a priest I have spent many hours visiting sick parishioners and as a bishop I supported hospital chaplains over a large area. In this capacity I have found myself in and out of hospitals speaking with patients, staff, managers, chief executives (CEO) and chairs of NHS Trusts. Admiring the commitment of the staff, I have at the same time heard of the strains that so many have had to face. One CEO was in utter despair describing the Accident and Emergency department in his hospital as a war zone: he was deeply concerned for the well-being of both staff and patients.
After my recent experience as a patient, I cannot speak highly enough of our NHS. I realise that I was viewed as an emergency, but the speed, professionalism and care with which I was treated must be second to none. My family were treated with the utmost consideration and gentleness. From the pinging machines to the amazing science and digital technology that resource the skills of the hospital staff, the NHS is one of the jewels of our nation. Regardless of the stresses and strains that the staff would have been facing, there was never a sense of being rushed or not having time. It was clear that their work was not simply a job but was a vocation into which they poured themselves: all of this was enriched by the wide variety of ethnic backgrounds of the staff, as demonstrated by the singing nurses.
The NHS is an inspired and inspiring institution, filled with inspired and inspiring people. It is an institution worth fighting for and holding on to. Of course, like all institutions, there need to be times of change and people will have different experiences of it, but let us never allow compromise on its three core principles:
- that it meets the needs of everyone
- that it be free at the point of delivery
- that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay
In this time of political instability, uncertainty and toxic national dialogue, I want to say an unqualified thank you to the NHS in general and to the doctors, nurses, chaplains, support staff, volunteers and Board of the Musgrove Park Hospital in particular.
Three cheers for them all.
Image 3: Barbara Cook /Musgrove Park Hospital/ CC BY-SA 2.0