Opinion with Christine Tongue: How people of the old British Empire saved my life

Christine Tongue

Thank goodness for the British Empire. Did I really say that?

In June I spent ten days in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in North London where they tackle some of the most complicated bits of surgery in the country, from microscopic nerve repairs to something huge, like my  new hip joint (it is huge — want to see the X-Ray?)

The RNOH put the previous one in 30 years ago and I was hoping it would see me out. But it suddenly failed me so I took up the hospital’s offer of a custom-made replacement.

The RNOH gained its reputation from repairing soldiers from two world wars  and they’re brilliant at what they do. But the engineering isn’t everything.

Once the dramatic stuff is over and you’ve survived some genius surgeon chopping your leg off and replacing most of your bones with something much better,  then your survival depends on nurses and health care assistants who have to help you do everything you need to do to stay alive.

I spent ten days nauseous from anaesthesia – my guts thought it would be fun to work backwards for a change, so a sick bowl was my constant companion.

And all this time saintly nurses and healthcare assistants mopped me up, emptied sick bowls, washed me, brought commodes, made tea and replaced the numerous tubes I was draped with for putting things into, and getting things out of, my broken body.

They also tried to cheer me up – by satisfying my endless curiosity about where they came from and what language they spoke at home.

I remembered how to say “good day” in Hungarian and “thank you” in Portuguese. But mostly my carers originated in the old British Empire, either newly here or second generation.

It tested my O-level geography to its limits! Capital of Nepal? “Is Everest far from where your family lives?  “I’ve been to Jaipur!” “I was in Mumbai when they still called it Bombay!”

I tried to remember the correct pronunciation of Nigerian names — I taught Nigerian students years ago — and sometimes even got them right!

My surgeon’s registrar was from Lagos – and a woman. You don’t see many female orthopaedic surgeons — it’s heavy work chopping legs off.

And after my op I was sewn up by a New Zealander whose family originated in India. Neat scar — thanks, Danny!

But does all this mean I think the British Empire was a good thing?

No, of course not. Just look at your history books. It brought death and exploitation and human misery to the world on an epic, industrialised scale

But what I do think is good is people coming to this country and to all countries and being free to move around the world and share and use their skills.

I’m sure that’s why many people thought the idea behind the Manston migrant processing  centre wasn’t such a bad one, because in theory it was set up to help people fleeing misery. But from what we hear it’s been used to detain people and treat them as some kind of ‘invaders.’

We all of us need other people’s help. We all of us need other people’s skills. It shouldn’t matter what part of the world they come from. And who knows — one of them, one day, might save your life.

Christine Tongue is a member of disability campaign group Access Thanet


  1. Glad to hear you’re back and well, it’s great to hear we can still learn new languages in hospital while in QEQM 2016 like you I was having chats and asked how to say things in there even learnt Maori, I know it really helps to pass the time and it helps you’re recovery from the operation which is no bad thing, soon be running around when are you going to do the fun run?, as you say about immigration my heart surgeon is from Iran and we had a chat about Iran formally Persha while he was operating all but 2 minutes while he was doing a tricky bit, apart from the Albanians who the majority of have no reason to flea there country, those should follow the correct channels to come over here, those fleeing war or persecution that is a different matter every safe country should welcome them as we do.

    • The girl who brought the dinners I couldn’t eat was Albanian, I think. And i felt very bad when she was upset because i couldnt eat. So my welcome extends to everyone!

  2. May need that hospital myself soon Christine, I didn’t realise getting old was so difficult! Yes, we should welcome all those who are fleeing possible death, and persecution in their own countries. I have an ex Nigerian cleaning lady, and her husband is a Care Worker. Her eldest boy is at Canterbury University, studying mental health!

  3. It is good to hear that Christine is on the mend and interesting to hear about how the NHS would not survive without people from many different countries.

    That was my experience when I had a liver transplant at King’s College Hospital.

    That is why I find it so despicable all this talk of an ‘invasion’ of migrants. Boris Johnson offered hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents the chance to come here. Why are they more deserving than those whose countries we have wrecked like Afghanistan?

    It is often those who support the endless wars abroad – Iraq, Libya, Syria etc. – who then complain about the consequence of those wars – refugees.

    Add to that Brexit, the lunatic decision to ‘regain control of our own affairs’ which has resulted in an even greater shortage of person power in the NHS.

    Perhaps someone will tell us what the benefits of Brexit have been to date?!!

    • There have been no benefits after leaving the EU, but plenty of disadvantages ask Mark Carney, for 7 years head of the bank of England says! Just been reading that this current budget is as a direct result of leaving the EU, and the labour shortages too! Mark says that in 2016 before we left the EU, the British economy was 90% of that of Germany, its now 70%!

  4. A&E at QEQM – impressive staff all round and the number of BAME staff is very noticeable (though you do notice A LOT of things while virtually camping in the waiting area). Seemed to me that many BAME people in the less skilled jobs appeared to be better educated than was required for the role e.g. really great communication skills even if their English wasn’t technically perfect. I was just musing … watching … thinking that perhaps in some ways, in some areas of the economy / services the UK gets a pretty good deal from immigration. And yep, I also realise there are problems.

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