Opinion with Christine Tongue: What we owe the NHS

Christine Tongue

I’ve been chopped up and put back together again – caringly and  medically. And in hospital. But your body doesn’t really distinguish between major hip surgery for your long term benefit and having your leg chewed off by a polar bear. Your immune system is screaming YOU IDIOT! and planning revenge for getting yourself into danger.  How do you survive?

Fortunately modern medicine has ways of dealing with this. Here’s some snapshots of what happened to me.

Coming round and realising you’ve survived but you’re plugged into a load of tubes – oxygen, saline,  morphine on demand! I had one button for calling the nurse and one for administering a dose of morphine.  Easily mixed up when you’re still a bit high from anaesthetic….and a catheter so no rushing to the loo or waiting in misery for a bed pan.

I needed help just sitting up, washing, drinking – everything.

But it’s not the paraphernalia,  it’s the people you remember when you’re finally out.

Fellow patients are a big comfort – instant friendship as you encourage each other to walk, distract each other from pain and share misery about the Lady in the Corner (LIC) who kept her curtains drawn, her telly loud and her temper fierceShe hated the food and most of the staff, especially when they tried to open her curtains.  I like blue but a week of staring at curtains instead of the window she was hogging, was a week too long. I’m sure she had her own problems but the poor nurses had to deal with it all.

The nurses will  stay in my mind for ever, keeping everything functioning and staying optimistic when the LIC was screeching at them or clearing up some foul mess as yet another hospital dinner hit my sick bowl.

Nurses like beautiful staff nurse Amina, who sympathised with my nonstop nausea because she’d just come back to work after months of morning sickness. We also had the same west Midlands accent but she’d come to work in a London teaching hospital because of the wide experience to be gained. I only saw nurses’ eyes as they all wore masks but she’d spent months of nauseous boredom practising eyeshadow blending so the result was gorgeous. She was fresh back and keen to get to work again. But as the days went by, the eye makeup disappeared, I caught sight of her holding her back in pain, and colleagues urged her to go and lie down. Five months pregnant and putting in a twelve hour shift looked like a real challenge. She didn’t want to let down her colleagues as they badly needed experienced staff, but I could see it was hard for her.

And Melissa, student nurse but in her thirties.  She came to nursing through an Access course in her local college so she brought maturity and commitment to the job. It takes dedication to come to a low paid job, accompanied by huge amounts of studying and work in a hospital the other side of London, paying London fares and worrying if her ten year old daughter got to school safely. Her husband, a trained engineer, had taken a job at Aldi because it was near to home and they got discounts on food. Money was a serious worry. She was helping me wash when Boris Johnson announced that people on housing benefits would be able to get mortgages. She laughed in disgust that our politicians could be so out of touch.

And Yasmin, whose family  lived near Everest, tiny, incredibly strong and always offering to make tea with smiling eyes. She did nights and cheered me up at 8pm, and was still smiling at 8am when breakfast came round – and the LIC had once again refused to eat that early.

Paulo was a Portuguese man who came over from the men’s ward to help wash patients when a nurse couldn’t get in because her car broke down. The LIC went ballistic and wouldn’t let him through her curtains. I gave myself a talking to about modesty etc and let him wash my hair – after five days of sweating in  bed. He was brilliant and really careful to keep water off the huge dressing on my leg. And I smelt good at last. Obrigado! And thanks EU for luring him here ten years ago. Hope he stays.

I could go on and on but my main thought through all this traumatic experience was why do these fantastic people have to worry about money? No wonder they need to strike. Anyone concerned about the effect of striking health workers on the NHS needs to think there are already over 140,000 vacancies in the health service. Give them good pay and good work conditions, give them grants to study, and motivate them to stay here when they qualify. Be endlessly  grateful. I am! Seems simple to a recent patient.

(Names have been changed)

Christine Tongue is a member of disability campaign group Access Thanet


  1. Ironically, you’d have got just as good treatment and staff in the Private Sector. With nurses paid more.
    In a truly free market, the Price of Labour is what the market will bear. It’s the very existence of the monolith that keeps remuneration low.

    • In the private sector they tend to not do complicated stuff like my leg. Straightforward surgery and out ASAP is whst they prefer! Quick turnover!

      • Well they do complex stuff in the Private Sector all across Europe and throughout the rest of the Anglosphere.
        Anyhoo. Glad you’re well. Have a good Christmas.😉

      • Not really Phyllis. There are other anglophone nations and… how many countries in Western Europe?
        Don’t just straightaway go for the exceptional case.

  2. Remembering when I had my knee partially replaced. Staff fantastic.
    One patient on my ward of four was more of a pain than following the opp. I’m in pain grumble, grumble, grumble, Nurse, Mr Grumble “I am in pain” Nurse, Nurse, “Food is cold”. Exasperated nurse”its free isn’t it. Nurse, Nurse, Nurse, “Its not cooked” Exasperated nurse “Its free isn’t it” retort from Mr grumble “I pay my taxes”.
    Three nurses to look after sixteen patients. The nurses were constantly on the go.
    After two days of Mr Grumble, no wonder I was up walking with crutches and discharged leaving Mr grumble to continue his winging.

    • R. Never judge other patients behaviour, many of them are mentally ill or have diseases like Alzheimer’s. The damage to the NHS includes not providing decent care for people with brain disorders and not all brain disorders are the same. Of course there can be isolated examples of ignorant, ill-mannered idiots but that just reflects the society we are in.

  3. There is no greater feeling for a nurse than to care for another human being when they need that care. As for private care very large numbers of doctors nurses and other NHS staff moon light in the private sector, the NHS is their “day job”.
    I’ve been in both camps for many years. 12/14 hour working day spread between camps is not uncommon.

  4. Well done Christine! The NHS is the vital jewel in the crown of the Welfare state, and must be properly funded, especially now there are so many “Baby Boomers” coning on line! I am in my ninth decade, and my health took a nose dive recently, only able to walk 20 or 30 yards! I gave a blood sample a couple of weeks ago, and was told my GP would contact me with the result, and on a Friday night at 8pm, there was a loud banging on my front door. It was my GP! He had biked over to see if I was OK because I wasn’t answering my phone!

    It turned out BT or one of their sub contractors, who had been working on and off in my road for a week or more, had turned my phone off, without my knowing! If my Doctor hadn’t come out to see me that night, I would not have known I didn’t have a phone connection! How’s that for National Health Service! This Tory government does not have any policies other than to blame the victims of their Micky Mouse economics! Pay public service workers at least the same as inflation, so they don’t have to take a pay cut every year!

  5. Emergency medical procedures at the Ashford William Harvey hospital heart unit are excellent but transfer to the ward brought reality – no natural light, appalling food. No washing or toilet facilities whilst tied down with sensors and a basin of water and wash cloth only when you ask. Female patient on the mixed ward seen using wireless connection to walk to shower/toilet – none available for me as I was told they had been “stolen”.
    Add a noisy rabble of nurses on the stairway complaining loudly about a doctor who didn’t understand Indian nurses. All this using language that would have seen me prosecuted had I used it in public.
    I saw better professionalism in a prison hospital unit I visited during my working life.

    Sorry Christine but you were lucky in your care – being known as a journalist has its advantages.

  6. Thanks Haygordon for a bit of balance. In terms of staff attitudes the NHS has long been a mixed bag. I have experienced fantastic care, good care, okay care. And then there’s the abysmal type. Worst experience I’ve had was when giving birth many years ago. Fortunately both I and my child survived. Tried thinking ‘that was then’ but the recent enquiries regarding maternity services at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals and East Kent have shown that appalling errors and equally disgraceful attitudes continue in Maternity services.
    Seems to me that a patient may well be comforted, given the best possible treatment, neglected and verbally abused all in the space of one day in hospital. People are different, NHS staff are all different and the NHS is a monolith with many facets.
    A well-funded system in which staff morale is high is the best insurance against poor quality care and ill-treatment of patients.
    One thing I do recognise for sure in this article is that many NHS staff are just amazing despite lousy working conditions and poor pay. All credit to them.

  7. I’m sorry you had such a bad time. I don’t think in the National Orthopaedic Hospital I got better treatment than anyone else. In fact I finished up with malnutrition from not eating for ten days and a nurse – only on my last day – suggesting Ensure which is a meal supplement. That’s also to do with support staff, like the food suppliers having little contact with the medical staff, so all the meals I couldn’t face weren’t recorded anywhere. It took a blood test to work out I was low on essential stuff caused by not eating. But mostly the staff were brilliant, just tired and too busy. I’m not known in North London medical circles except as a really interesting orthopaedic problem so I dont think being a writer made any difference.

    • I’m not suggesting for one moment that you got special treatment Christine, though I expect your appreciative attitude brought out the best in people.
      I guess I’ve had more contact with the NHS than I’d wish over many years and the randomness of care and attitudes is really what I was talking about. And I see that unpleasant behaviour, poor judgement and indeed many clinical errors are largely the result of long-term and worsening institutional weaknesses. By the same token, much that is positive seems to be due to the character and integrity of individual staff who refuse to give in to exhaustion, low pay and bad management … well, as long as possible anyway. And I support NHS staff on principle.
      I hope your recovery is going well.

  8. If you are having loss of appetite problems Christine, try Complan, its a multi vitamin powder, when mixed with milk or a milk substitute, it produces a creamy liquid, which I have with mixed fruit for breakfast!

  9. Had to have a chest X-Ray at the QEQM yesterday, and as I have mobility problems, my cleaning lady kindly dropped me off at the hospital. All went reasonably well, and I was out within half an hour, but big problem, how do I get home! I don’t own a Mobile Phone so thought I would ask Reception to phone for a taxi. But guess what, NO Reception staff, they had gone to lunch, Duurh! Managed to get a bus, but walking from the bus stop to home was a challenge!

    • I think getting a mobile is vital for dealing with emergencies. But I thought there was a phone next to the main door at QEQM specifically to phone for taxis. I may have remembered wrong.

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