Having rigorously shielded myself from the Covid-19 virus for three months, adhering scrupulously to all government regulations about self-isolating and social distancing – give or take the ambiguity about whether or not it counted as two forms of exercise to ride a bike to the allotment – and having only darkened one set of doors, those of the cycle shop, other than our own in all that time, I found myself venturing not once but twice this week into the York Hospital, the one place in North Yorkshire I was most likely to encounter the virus.
The risk analysis didn’t involve the amount of time the above introduction might seem to imply. Not a whole lot more, in fact, than it took to make the choice some ten years ago when my brilliant surgeon at the same hospital spelt out my choice prior to an entirely unrelated emergency operation: “Look at it this way, if I don’t operate, you have an 85% chance of not being alive in 24 hours; if I do operate, your chances of not being alive tomorrow evening go down to about 15%.” Not a difficult choice, and not a fragment of dialogue one is likely to forget in a hurry. The occasion for my visits this time was my body’s decision last weekend to take it upon itself, fortunately very fleetingly, to let my brain know that it didn’t think the latter was paying it nearly enough attention, getting its message across by way of a first unwritten warning. Direct and to the point like the surgeon, it momentarily cut off my brain’s blood supply, in a way vaguely reminiscent of the way our housemaster used to flick the dormitory light-switch off and on again to alert us to the fact that we needed to put books away before the lights went out. I blame various combinations of Boris and Priti with the odd, very odd, Dominic or two thrown in for good measure. Considering a visit to A&E a risk too far, and phoning 111 a waste of time, I followed the (wise) advice I would have been given 50 years ago: I took an aspirin and went to bed, deciding to phone the GPs’ surgery in the morning.
Over the course of a total of around six hours across two days, with abundant directions from random, but invariably helpful, hospital staff, I managed to find my way variously to the stroke clinic, the phlebotomy department, the X-ray department for ultra-sound and the diagnostic imaging department – all widely distributed along numerous intersecting corridors. As I made my way around the hospital, dutifully wearing the face-covering my wife, Sue, had manufactured for me, I made a point of looking at the names on the doors I went past and listening to the accents of the people I spoke to and overheard: German names, French names, South Asian names, Chinese names, and a variety of other East European names whose origins I couldn’t identify as well as British names. Unsurprisingly, I heard a similar range of accents from the nurses, cleaners and porters I encountered on my way.
There was a three-hour interval on Friday afternoon after my 40 minutes in the MRI/MRA sardine scan before the specialist could see me, while she waited for the images to come through to the stroke clinic and the vascular surgeon to come out of an operating theatre to peruse them. My iPhone was almost out of battery and I hadn’t taken anything to read, so I had three hours to sit in the waiting room, focus on what was going on around me and contemplate existence. It didn’t take much contemplation to arrive at the conclusion, yet again, that we are unbelievably lucky in UK to have the NHS, whose 72nd anniversary comes around in a fortnight. Wherever I went in the hospital I encountered warmth and friendliness, and a high degree of competence and efficiency. I had absolute confidence in the skill of the doctors I encountered, which is by no means automatically the case, and, having paid R11,000 for an MRI in Cape Town in November, it didn’t pass unnoticed that nobody asked me for a penny. I was relieved at the end of the day when the conclusion was reached that the hiccup in the blood supply could be dealt with medicinally rather than needing surgery, but after my previous experience I would have had perfect confidence that, whoever at that hospital was wielding it, the scalpel would be in good hands.
Although the waiting room of a stroke clinic would no doubt be as good a place as any, and better than most, to have one, as I sat there I had very deliberately to avoid thinking too much about our current government in relation to the NHS. For all their deceitful claims to the contrary, many of them would like nothing more than to see the NHS broken up and privatised so that they could profit from shareholdings and use our health services as a bargaining chip in their attempt to get their yearned-for trade deal with the US. Many of them would also like nothing better than to see that rainbow collection of foreign names on the doors, to borrow Desmond Tutu’s analogy, replaced with Smiths and Browns, and all the intriguing and varied accents replaced with standard English ones. Anyone who ever needed proof of this government’s utterly cynical attitude towards the NHS has only to look at its criminally long-delayed, and still largely useless, Test and Trace programme. Having painstaking avoided utilising the NHS’s network of GP practices and our local Councils’ Public Health departments, which stood a good chance of success, in favour of its perennial, ideologically driven, commitment to shrink-the-State outsourcing, our government has the bare-faced cheek to duck its responsibility by labelling its dog’s breakfast of a programme with the NHS badge: ‘NHS Test and Trace.’ But best not spend too much time getting enraged by that, lest the senior housemaster in the sky switch the lights off without further warning.