I ended up in their care because one day I was cycling up a long, steep hill when, near the top, I felt a sort of burning in my chest which I’d felt many times before in similar circumstances. This time, though, it was different and I actually felt ill. So I stopped, got off, sat on a bench by the road and passed out. I was only out for seconds but clearly I didn’t look good because a woman stopped her car and came to ask if I was OK. I thanked her for stopping, assured her that I was just out of breath and continued to the all-day seminar for which I’d been heading.
I told my GP about it the following day. He organised scans, an angiogram and things which told them that my aortic valve wasn’t working properly and should be replaced. OK, enough of the diagnostics, except to note that, despite the surgeon’s necessary warnings that heart surgery was qualitatively different from, say, a haircut, I was never overly concerned at the prospect. That doesn’t mean I’m brave or anything. I suppose I just felt lucky that the problem had been identified and was going to be sorted. The strange thing was that the idea of being given a new start produced something like exhilaration. And there was no point dwelling on the negatives because, if things didn’t work out, I wouldn’t know anything about it anyway. The surgeon stressed that the choice of whether to have the operation or not was mine and all I could think of was that I was lucky to be living in a country where I have that choice and don’t have to pay for it.
By the way, while it obviously does make sense not to dwell on the negatives, the legal implications of all medical procedures mean that part of the admissions and pre-op process involves staff reminding you of all the things that can go wrong and asking you to sign to say that you understand and accept them.
The surgeon was very attentive, visited several times, explained it all and altogether had a reassuring air. I confessed that, thanks to an anaesthetist friend, I’d been allowed to see a thoracic operation at first hand to use in one of my books and that I hadn’t painted my fictional surgeon in a very flattering light. As we were talking, a young medical student from China interrupted us (very politely and apologetically) to ask my permission to be present as an observer at the operation. I said yes, she went away smiling, and the surgeon said ‘I wonder whether she’s going to ask me, too’.
Then it happened. One morning, the anaesthetist arrived, we were chatting away as she gave me stuff to swallow. I remember her telling me that it was preferable to injecting … Then, what seemed like a few seconds later, I remember vague feelings, a tube in my throat, voices, the tube being removed and quite a lot of floating, sleeping, more gentle voices and gradually realising that it was all over.
Then 24 hours in one to one Intensive Care, less than that in the two to one High Dependency Unit and, in just a couple of days, walking about and being fed, looked after, tested for this and that and generally marvelling at the fact that the doctors, nurses, cleaners, auxiliaries, students, whoever – perform similar miracles day after day after day, night after night after night.
They’re all consummate professionals, with skills far beyond those of the care, concern and compassion that are the outward signs of what they do. They’re knowledgable about the medication they hand out so carefully, they suit their tone to individual patients and, however rushed they are, they always find time to answer questions or provide the things the patients ask for. They work 12 hour shifts, arriving at 7 a m and maintaining their air of positivity right through the day. In fact, on the day I went home, there was a major snowfall and one of the day staff was late arriving. She told me that she lived in Fraserburgh (up the coast from Aberdeen) and that the journey to work, which normally took an hour, had taken four that day. The thing that struck me about her story, though, was that on normal days, that meant a working day of fourteen hours – every day. How many other professions do that? And how many carry the responsibility of other people’s health and even lives with them in the process?
This is my inadequate thanks to all of them. In all the column inches spent on the NHS as politicians speak of value for money, cost savings, increased efficiencies, not nearly enough is written on the fundamental human values its staff embody. The sort of profits they generate can’t be listed on balance sheets or hoarded in vaults. No, they have true worth. .