My mum has had Crohn’s for fifteen years, easily controlled by steroids when it bothers her. Eighteen months ago she got a bad flare up, stopped eating, gradually dropping from 8 stone to 6. So, she tried to get a phone consultation for steroids. I won’t bore you with our stories of calling the doctor at 8am, being 77th in the queue, then told at 9.30am all that day’s appointments are gone, day after day after day: these are too commonplace now to be noteworthy.
Eventually, I tried the e-consult form on the Dr’s website. This is a tricky beast to negotiate, because if you make yourself sound too ill, the process is promptly aborted and you’re told to take yourself to A&E. (We’d tried that, and it had bought her a week in hospital, on a drip, much needed, but no steroids). A nutritionist rang, twice, and advised her to try whole milk and puddings, but as my mum explained, Crohn’s makes even the thought of food impossible to countenance, and everything she swallowed, her body swiftly ejected.
They prescribed her those meal replacement milkshakes, and gave her blood tests, a colonoscopy, 2 MRIs, but no steroids. They found something in her colon they thought might be cancer. It wasn’t. It was Crohn’s. Hurrah. But still no steroids.
The surgery kept texting her to get her covid jab, although she could no longer support her own weight, because still no steroids. After more hours waiting on the phone a nurse came to the house to vaccinate her, but still, and do feel free to join in on the chorus, no steroids.
We went back to A&E, spent eight hours sitting on those plastic chairs designed to shake off all but the most determined: I’d had enough of watching my mum die before my eyes. They put her on another drip and gave her two blood transfusions, treated all the symptoms of Crohn’s, but not the cause. Why can’t we just have some steroids, I kept asking every doctor who ran past us, white coattails flapping; then we will go away and leave you in peace, honest. An emergency doctor promised to put a prescription in the post. We waited three weeks, but it didn’t come. We rang the surgery again and got an appointment for a telephone consultation. No one rang. My mum lost another half stone, could no longer stand or feed herself, slept on the sofa night and day, a scrawny, gasping boy-shaped mess, shivering in the space once filled by my curvy, funny, darling mum.
So I googled “Can I see a nice helpful doctor now please if I type in my credit card details?” and blow me, you can. Half an hour and £40 later Dr Anne appeared on my phone for a video consultation and a steroid prescription. It was easy. Now my mum’s sitting up, demanding takeaways, and complaining no one’s looked after her plants properly, all pink-faced and perky. Bliss.
The NHS is no longer fit for purpose. It can only be accessed by those with an abundance of health, time, energy and determination, none of which my mum possessed at the start of her illness, all of which dwindled at every obstacle she encountered.
I don’t have any answers, and I have heard too many similar stories from too many people to believe our experience exceptional. I know that if I get ill I will pay £40 immediately rather than face the torturous, baffling death-throes of the NHS, which seems to be in even worse shape than my mother. I realise this foretells the dissolution of free, accessible healthcare in the UK, and that absolutely devastates me. I squirmed with guilt as the chemist said, “Oh, is that a private prescription?”, her voice dripping contempt, but having spent 18 months watching my mother fade to a wraith, my chief emotion remained relief. Don’t get ill, Thanet, but if you must, make sure you have an income.