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