On 5th July 1948, courtesy of Clement Attlee’s Labour government the people of Britain became the recipients of a national health service which was free to all at the point of use, paid for through progressive taxation, a tax system which put into practice the ideal of citizens contributing according to their ability to do so and receiving, in this case, according to their clinical need. No longer would sick people feel the need to shy away from seeking help from a doctor because they could not afford to do so. My mother still remembers her mother living in fear of the cost of the doctor’s bill. The population had ‘pulled together’ during World War Two and now a new post-war age was dawning in which selfless actions for the greater good could now be put to peaceful purposes.
I benefitted from the existence of the NHS when I came into the world at the Priory Hospital in Haverfordwest in 1960 and as a child I received all the free inoculations, dental treatment and medical checks that the system provided. Inevitably, as a child I took it for granted and given that tooth extractions and injections were included I did not see it as a good thing; the polio vaccine-laced sugar lump was scant consolation for the promise of pain the health service otherwise represented in my young mind. As an adult I never gave much thought to the NHS because I was rarely ill, and therefore had little need to do so; I visited the Accident & Emergency (A&E) department at Ipswich’s old Anglesea Road hospital when I shut my right forefinger in the door of a Fiat 126 on men’s Wimbledon final day 1980 and then in autumn 1994 I attended the re-located A & E department at Heath Road when I chipped an ankle bone playing football; my darting run into the penalty area coming to a sudden premature halt as my ankle gave way on the uneven surface of one of the pitches up at Gainsborough Sports Centre. But otherwise, the NHS meant little to me despite its apparently increasing profile in the national psyche, which more recently reached a crescendo in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, which almost seemed to define Britain in terms of its NHS; to be honest I thought it was going a bit far.
When Town drew at home with Sunderland on August 10th this year I was disappointed because it was a game we should have won, but I was not despondent, I wasn’t going to get ill over it. I went to work the following Monday as usual but on Tuesday morning awoke in the small hours feeling short of breath. I didn’t go to work on Tuesday because I felt lousy; a visit to my GP produced a course of Amoxycillin antibiotic to deal with a perceived chest infection. By Thursday I was no better and my wife Paulene called the doctor’s surgery, they asked me to come in but I was so short of breath by now I was barely able to walk; they said to call an ambulance. I was admitted to Colchester hospital that afternoon; the following morning I was put into a coma. I had pneumonia, but on the following Tuesday lunchtime I travelled at speed under sirens and blue flashing lights to the specialist cardiac unit at Basildon hospital.
The following morning I had open-heart surgery to replace two valves that had been attacked by a bacterium; the pneumonia was a decoy, I actually had Endocarditis, a very rare but potentially fatal condition which infects and eats away at the endocardium (the inner lining of the heart chambers), and at the heart valves.
Town’s two-all draw at Peterborough came and went without my knowledge and then I missed the mid-week home game versus Wimbledon on 20th August, which was annoying, but my ventilator would no doubt have aggravated other supporters in the seats around me and it would have been difficult to give the team much vocal support with a bunch of tubes stuck down my throat. Being comatose however, is not necessarily a barrier to watching the Town at Portman Road, as many season ticket holders in seats all around the ground regularly seem to prove; as animated as some Northstanders get, Portman Road cannot really be described as a cauldron of noise. By the time Saturday came, and Town were heading ‘up north’ to Bolton Wanderers, I was out of the coma and was conscious, but sadly if predictably not fit to travel. Judging by some of the hallucinations I was experiencing due to the pain-killing drugs I was receiving however, I doubt I would have understood what was going on even if I could have watched the game. No one could have blamed me if the 5-0 final score in Town’s favour had seemed like just another weird imagining from my drug-addled brain. A 5-0 away win still seems a bit unlikely.
My recovery was to be a long one and one which now, almost three months later, is not yet over. As my condition improved and I recovered from surgery I was moved out of the Critical Care Unit into a Cardiac ward. I caught up on the results I had missed and as I continued to recover, Town continued to win, with the occasional draw just to give the other clubs a chance. A variety of friends and neighbours swapped about my season ticket between them and sat with Pat from Clacton and ever-present Phil who never misses a game, so it didn’t go to waste and Town continued to do well.
Whilst everything was rosy at Portman Road my thoughts however had begun to linger on the fact that there were eight recent days in my life of which I had no memory. What struck me was that during these eight days I had apparently come close to death and my life had ultimately been saved by the NHS. The open heart surgery I had been given was remarkable enough, but the NHS kept giving with continuing care of the highest quality. I was struck by just how brilliant the staff were but also how they were of so many nationalities from all around the world. As if the ideal of a free health service wasn’t enough the NHS operates as an international melting pot of doctors and nurses and auxiliary staff, a caring combination of all races, colours and creeds, a World health organisation in the service of a single national population. That combination of being a health service free at the point of use and its being staffed by people from all around the world makes the NHS one of, if not the most magnificent achievement of human civilisation, an international fellowship of people acting solely for good and not for profit; it is awe-inspiring and achieves what much organised religion strives for.
If I had to come up with some laboured football related analogy I would say that the NHS is the World Cup of healthcare, free to tune in to whenever you want and in an Ipswich Town context it is a Portman Road where all the gates are open all the time and the team is made up of a selection of some of our best ever players (loanees included) all of different nationalities, except there must always be two particular Dutchmen; for example: Bialkowski, Burley, Taricco, Thijssen, Hunter, Hreidarsson, Legwinski, Muhren, Crawford, Counago, Finidi. Subs: Begovic, Diallo, Thetis, De Vos, Chopra, Dos Santos, Peralta. Other team selections can be made according to how brilliant or amusing you want your team to be.
But the moral of this tale is not about football; it is more important than that, it is that matters of life and death seriously are about life and death. The NHS is always there to save anyone’s life at any time and it remains free at the point of use; so please think very carefully about who you vote for on 12th December if you want that to remain the case.