WHOEVER we are, we’ve all been touched by the health service and we all want to say thank you.
The stories in my new book, Dear NHS: 100 Stories To Say Thank You, aren’t just testimonials – they are memories relived, secrets shared, the comedies and tragedies of everyday life that we all recognise.
They are also a stark reminder to me that they never teach you at medical school what to say when you see a famous patient. Is it more professional to pretend you don’t recognise them or to gush that you loved them in that film?
In my first year as a doctor, I found myself checking over a singer (A-list) who’d had a funny turn with no identifiable cause whatsoever, save for the enormous quantity of drugs he had just consumed (A-class). When I asked his occupation, he just raised an eyebrow at me that said: “You know who I am.”
I still slightly regret not having my stethoscope signed.
Like all my contributors, I’m grateful beyond words to the NHS – the 1.5million people who go above and beyond the call of duty every single day. The ones who give us hope and make sure there’s a tomorrow, those for whom the extra mile is the standard distance. And that’s why I’m supporting The Sun’s 2020 Who Cares Wins Awards.
Here, eight famous faces recall their moving encounters with the National Health Service.
Mum’s death broke me but I look back with gratitude for her exemplary care
NOT all stories have happy endings. Spoiler alert: In this one my mum dies.
My mother Nora Mary Carr (née Lawlor) was a nurse. She trained at the Regional Hospital in Limerick, Ireland, and came over to London in the early 70s.
She was one of those migrant workers, the ones that (when we’re not having a global pandemic) get given a hard time: “These immigrant doctors and nurses, they come over here saving our lives.”
Some say: “Grief Is The Price We Pay For Love”. And some say: “Home Isn’t A Place, It’s A Person.”
Well, my mother was my home and when she went, the grief pretty much broke me. She was young — in her mid-50s — when she died in Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, London.
Opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Thames, you could scarcely find a more picturesque spot to watch a loved one fade away and die.
She passed in September 2001 just before 9/11. It felt like the sky was falling and the world was ending — just like it does now. My mother first got sick with pancreatitis in January of that year. That’s nine months of 24-hour care, day-in day-out.
There are countries in the world where that simply could not happen. Who would have paid for it?
The care my mother received was, as you’d imagine, exemplary.
But it was not just my mother who was looked after in that hospital.
Through their support and unending kindness, the doctors and nurses also took care of my brothers and me and helped us cope.
Or to pretend to cope, which I think is as close as you can get, in that sort of situation.
I remember at the end, a nurse told me that I should call my brothers.
She said that my mother had around five hours. Imagine that.
The nurse had seen so many people die that she could say, with accuracy, what was coming and when.
Mercifully, she knew the signs which allowed us all to be there at the end. If you can be with a loved one when they die, you should. Her hands getting cold as the circulation shut down, her breathing getting heavy, the death rattle.
Bearing witness to a death is an incredibly intimate thing. You should be there, not because it’s easy — it isn’t — but because one day you’ll want someone to hold your hand.
It’s amazing to me that I can look back on a period of my life, that ended with the most important person in my world being taken away, with a prevailing feeling of gratitude.
The truth is in those nine months that hospital became our home and the NHS became part of our family.
One day, odds are, I will die in an NHS hospital too. And I’d like to say thank you.
Not only for taking care of my mother — but, as I’ll be in no fit state to say it on the day, thank you for being there to comfort and care for me at the hour of my death.
I hadn’t dared to remove my shoe in case I found a few loose toes in there
THE most urgently I have needed the NHS was when I had an argument with a hover mower.
Reader, the advice never to mow the lawn in slippy shoes should be heeded, as mowing down an incline I slipped and my natural reaction was to pull whatever I was holding on to towards me, which, at that moment in time, was a whirring blade. Ouch!
I found myself in an ambulance on the way to the local hospital.
The A&E department were fantastic and also skilled in cutting off my shoe, which I hadn’t dared to remove myself in case I found a few too many loose toes in there.
When a brave nurse eventually took a closer look, she found the big toe attached to my foot by the smallest amount of skin and two other toes badly injured (I hope you’ve had your lunch). A surgeon was called and I ended up on an operating table, followed by three days in hospital.
When they told me off for not wearing the appropriate footwear for mowing, I very nearly didn’t have a leg to stand on (well, a foot).
All joking aside, the NHS were there when I needed them and took care of me in the most professional and caring way.
Fortunately I wasn’t working at the time, but throughout my career I have had to stand on my own two feet and, thanks to the NHS, I have been able to do so.
Footnote: Wear sensible shoes when mowing. Three cheers for the NHS!
I thanked surgeon for putting my two week-old ‘Lucky’ tattoo back together
DEAR NHS, you were there for me at 24, when I was stabbed.
After five hours in surgery, 38 internal stitches (no idea how many external) and with the possibility of me not waking up or being disabled due to nerve damage, you brought me round and asked me to shrug my shoulders to make sure I still had the use of my arms. I did. Phew.
When I glanced at my reflection for the first time and saw the wound, I thanked the surgeon for putting my two week-old “Lucky” tattoo back together.
He thanked me — apparently it made his job easier as it helped him to work out what went where!
The NHS is unique. Without sounding cheesy, it’s the backbone of the UK
ALTHOUGH I am grateful for the times the NHS has been there for me personally, the thing I’m most grateful for is the care they gave my grandmother in the final few months of her life.
She was in Aldeburgh Hospital in Suffolk with terminal cancer but had had a lifetime of health problems that left her in constant pain.
I was lucky enough not to be on tour during my grandmother’s final months, and because I lived locally I was able to visit her every few days. The care she received was incredible, the people who worked there so lovely, compassionate, funny and caring. When she passed away, I wrote a song called Supermarket Flowers about the situation.
The verse lyrics are about packing up her room at that hospital.
Me and my family became very close to the nurses who worked there and my mum is still in touch with them now. I see them from time to time when I’m in the area and it’s like meeting old friends.
The NHS is unique. Without sounding cheesy, it’s the backbone of our country and idolised by me and millions more.
Thank you to everyone who works for the NHS. Thank you for putting other people’s pain and suffering above your own, and thanks for all you’ve done for me and my family.
It brings me great comfort to know that when I go, the NHS is there for me
IN 2012, when the Olympics came to London amid much excitement, my sister took my mum as a treat.
But my mum found it overwhelming and claustrophobic.
She wanted to leave instantly. Strange. She was always the life and soul, this was her kind of thing.
Slowly other strange things started to happen. She began burning food.
My mum had never burnt a single thing in all her years — for her to even overcook a dish was unheard of.
She began to look a bit scruffier — my mum, who had always prided herself on her appearance.
She started to get forgetful — my mum, multi-tasker extraordinaire.
She became more bad-tempered — my mum, usually so measured and good-natured.
After some tests, we were told my mum had early onset dementia.
It progressed fast. Only a year on from the Olympics, we couldn’t even let her out of the house alone.
As I watched my baby and toddler learn new words, I watched her forget them. As my eldest ditched nappies, my mum donned them.
Each time I saw her, I would mourn different aspects of her. It wasn’t long before she was hospital-bound — the same NHS hospital my father had died in.
The hospital staff — overworked and underpaid — guided us through every step of the way.
Among the decisions the staff had presented us with was permission to not resuscitate. It was a sunny day in the hospital the day she passed away.
As with my father before her, I was there, holding her hand when her eyes finally glazed over.
The staff had known and prepared me for what was coming as though they were oracles of the future.
It brings me great comfort to know that when I go, should I need them, the NHS will be there for me too, just as they were there for my parents. They are here for us all.
We are so lucky to have such dedicated people to look after us
AS far back as I can remember, my mother was a nurse.
She became a sister on an NHS ward and later was a midwife, so my feelings about the NHS are obvious — it’s a fantastic institution. I know that anyone who works for them sees it as their vocation and is a real hero.
One of my outstanding memories is that, one night, in the winter in Liverpool where we lived in the midwife’s house, my mother was called out to assist a local lady in giving birth. I remember standing by the front door watching her leave the house on her midwife’s bicycle with a basket on the front and her medical case on the back.
The road was covered in a good few inches of snow, but she had no alternative other than to go to the birth in her midwife’s uniform on her standard-issue NHS bicycle.
She set off leaving tyre tracks in the snow. That moment will be with me forever and encapsulates my pride in, and gratitude for, the National Health Service.
We are so lucky in the UK to have such dedicated people to look after us all, and no matter who you are, you can still benefit from this fantastic system. Thanks NHS. Thanks heroes. Thanks Mum. Love, Paul
That angel in blue had saved me and I cried on the toilet in gratitude
THE birth of my daughter, Pip, in 2018 was hell.
I ended up giving birth by emergency C-section under general anaesthetic and the doctors and midwives saved my life.
I am eternally grateful for this, but not as grateful as I was when a lovely nurse helped me to have my first poo after surgery. Constipation is a pain in the ar*e (literally), but I have never known anything like this.
I lay in the hospital bed, colon full of compacted sh*te that actually felt like it was fermenting inside me.
Awful, poisonous farts would escape and smell like the toxic gas from a mummified corpse — they freed up a little space but still no relief.
My family and friends came to visit and to coo over the new baby, but I didn’t care — I smiled and nodded when they said how beautiful she was, but it was all a mask.
All I could think about was giving birth to the two metre-long anaconda snake of a sh*t I had inside me. Now that would be beautiful.
It was agony. I forgot what it was to be human. I had taken such a simple bodily function for granted — what I would give to have a dump.
Childbirth had been hell, but this was worse. On the eighth day, a nurse did a routine check-up and gave me my meds. As she spoke to me I could feel a hot fat lump in my throat and the tears began to roll.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “I haven’t had a poo for eight days,” I bawled.
‘Oh my goodness, you should have said so, I’ll fetch you some liquid laxatives.’ She returned with the laxatives and, after half an hour, I made my way to the toilet.
It was the greatest sh*t I’ve ever done in my life.
That angel in blue had saved me, and I cried on the toilet in gratitude.
After I came out of the bathroom, I lay in my bed and enjoyed cuddling my daughter for the first time, gazing into her eyes.
My husband entered the hospital room with a Costa coffee and a Take A Break magazine that he wafted in front of his nose as he retched.
“Jesus Christ, you finally went then,” he snorted.
The nurses washed my body with care and love when I couldn’t walk or sit
THE memories of the NHS I will hold dearest are ones that fill me with awe.
Of the nurses and doctors I knew by name in the weeks after my first brain haemorrhage, when I was staying in the Victor Horsley Ward at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square, London. The nurse who said — after everyone else in A&E struggled to find an answer when I was admitted — that maybe, just maybe, I should have a brain scan. She saved my life.
The anaesthetist who miraculously kept me giggling as he talked me through the process of what was about to happen to my brain.
The surgeon whose skill, quick thinking and sheer determination saved my life, while never letting on how close to death I had been.
The countless unthanked nurses who changed my catheter and cleaned up my bile-coloured vomit on the days when I couldn’t even manage water. The nurses who washed my body with care, generosity and love when I couldn’t walk or sit, with as much kindness as if I had been their own daughter.
The cleaners who mopped the floor when my bedpan fell to the ground, shame and embarrassment filling the room along with disinfectant, and then a reassuring smile and a knowledge that they’d seen worse.
The nurse who brought my best friend’s note up from the cold outside when he’d missed visiting hours but knew how much it would help me get through the night. She had been on her way home. These are only a handful of memories from those weeks as I waited to see if I could leave with my life intact. In all those moments, over those three weeks, I was not, not ever, truly alone.
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