Keren David

My family’s experience of a day — and a life — in the NHS

The NHS turns 70 next week. Here, the JC's Features Editor looks at how the health service has changed the lives of the people who use it

June 29, 2018 15:03

Accompanying my parents to the Lister Hospital in Stevenage this week was the perfect opportunity to reflect on 70 years of the NHS. Not only do both remember its birth — albeit as a “small child” in my mother’s case — but there was plenty of time to talk.

First, the 40-minute wait for a wheelchair to take Dad to his appointment on the fourth floor of this very large hospital which serves a vast swathe of north and central Hertfordshire.

“All these people,” says Dad — otherwise known as Joseph David, 90, a retired company director from Welwyn Garden City — surveying the busy reception area.

“They’d never have come to hospital before the NHS. Pregnant women, for example. They’d give birth at home — with a midwife if they were lucky.”

Dad grew up in Treforest, South Wales, on the outskirts of Pontypridd. “You didn’t go to the doctor unless you had to. You didn’t go unless you were dying. It cost half a crown a visit.”

As for the hospital — his nearest was in Pontypridd, “If you went in, you didn’t come out. You went there to die.”

Doctors, like teachers, were revered and earned “more than a senior miner”.

Mum — Shirley David, retired radiographer and guitar teacher — grew up in London, where the doctor cost more but the general attitude was the same.

“Five guineas, that was a lot of money in those days. You didn’t go to the doctor if you could avoid it. Maybe that’s why I try and avoid going to the doctor even now.”

In 1948 when the NHS was born, Dad was living in Manchester, studying textile chemistry. His cousin ran a pharmacy in one of the poorest areas of the city.

“The NHS came in and people were queuing in the streets to go to the doctor. And the doctor would give them prescriptions, and they’d come to my cousin and suddenly his business was one of the biggest in Manchester. Only Boots in the city centre had more people going there.”

His cousin made up batches of medicines — red, brown, white. “The doctor would call him and say, ‘it’s a white medicine day’. It didn’t matter what was in them, people believed they’d be cured — and they were.”

Mum too, remembers her mother’s medicine bottles. “She had a brown bottle for her nerves and a white one for her stomach.”

The porter arrives, and delivers us to the unit where dad will have his operation. More waiting. Mum tells me about joining the NHS in 1953 when she was still a teenager, as a trainee radiographer at the Middlesex Hospital.

“We didn’t think of it as being new and different, it just was. I was proud to be a national servant. Of course it was the same old Middlesex Hospital, with matron and starched caps. And the consultants had their private patients, who they fawned over.”

Mum keeps up with advances in x-ray technology, which she says is “amazing, wonderful”.

“I’m an antique. Mind you, we had to be cleverer than they do today. We had to use our brains to work out what exposure to give them. And then how light or dark to make the print. Now a computer does it for them — my knee surgeon showed me.”

She worked for the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery after the Middlesex, using then cutting edge technology for brain x-rays.

But when they married and moved to Welwyn Garden City in 1959 she moved to the local cottage hospital. “I was used to big machines. But here, there was a trolley and a tube, it was so primitive. We only had four sessions a week. If you broke your arm on the wrong day, you had to go to St Albans.”

The cottage hospital eventually turned into a general hospital, but a few years ago it was closed down and has now been transformed into a centre where “you go to have your blood tests done”.

For broken arms, other emergencies and most treatments, my parents have to go to Stevenage, 30 minutes away, which gets expensive if you take taxis, and is almost impossible by public transport.

Dad’s operation is finished — “the surgeon was marvellous” he says — and we leave. We’ve been here for six hours. One 90-year-old lady walked out, because she’d been waiting for hours and nobody had seen her.

Our only charge was £8 for the car park. 

“The problem with the NHS,” says Dad, “is it’s just too big. They’re trying to keep people alive forever.

“There’s infinite demand and finite resources.”

June 29, 2018 15:03

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