From David Maughan Brown in York: Exceedingly Testing

August 18th

There is a school of thought that holds that you aren’t in any position to criticise, and can’t write really authentically about, anything that you haven’t experienced yourself.  It isn’t a position I have a lot of time for – apart from anything else it would rather limit the scope of the writers of crime and thriller novels – but after months of irregular diary entries about coronavirus testing, I am in the privileged position of now being able to reassure members of that school that I am in a position to write from personal experience about the joys of being tested.  Pace Boris it wasn’t a world-beating experience.

Sunday saw the high-point of a two-week self-isolation build-up towards a pain-blocking epidural for my progressively degenerative spondylolisthesis, scheduled for this afternoon.  For anyone wondering why I bother to accord it the dignity of its full tongue-twister name, the answer is that getting my head and my keyboard around its name is the only means I have of asserting any kind of control over it when the analgesics stop working.  On Sunday I was not merely allowed out of strict lockdown, but actually, by way of enjoying my freedom, required to take a spin through the Yorkshire countryside for a test.   

‘Countryside’?  Those of you who know I live in York may be inclined to ask.  Isn’t there a testing site in York?  Yes, there is, there’s one in Poppleton, a village on the outskirts of York four miles the other side of the city from where we live, and, as it happens, two and a half miles from the York Hospital clinic I need to go to.  But I have been told to go to Malton for my test, 20 miles down the A64 towards Scarborough.   So I phone the relevant number and ask whether I can’t have my test at the Poppleton Testing Centre instead.  No, I can’t.  Why not?  “Because the centre at Poppleton isn’t connected to the hospital in York.”  So the centre a couple of miles from the hospital isn’t ‘connected to’ the hospital, but the one twenty miles away is?  “That’s right.”  So who gets to go to the one at Poppleton then? I ask.  “People who have phoned 119”, comes the answer.  “Ah”, I say, light dawning, brilliant idea arriving, “can’t I just phone 119 and go to Poppleton instead?”  No, comes the answer (they have thought of that wizard wheeze), you can’t, because if you do we won’t get the results in time.  Silly me.  48 hours is obviously not nearly long enough to get the results across the gaping two and a half mile distance from the testing ground to the hospital in a world-beating system.  The swabs must have to go to Birmingham or somewhere properly centralised to be processed.

So we are sent off down the A64 towards Malton for a scheduled appointment at 11.30 on a Sunday morning in the middle of August.   For those unfamiliar with the geography of the North of England, the A64 is the main route from Leeds, the third largest city in England, to the seaside.  For those unfamiliar with what is referred to as the North-South divide in UK, the road from Leeds to the seaside just happens to be single carriageway for a good part of the way.   The nearest equivalent in the South is probably the road from London to Brighton, which just happens to be a motorway.   For those unfamiliar with the seasonal cycle in UK, a Sunday in August is guaranteed to be peak traffic-jam time for everyone heading for the beach during the school holidays.  It happened to be raining, so I naively thought I might just try the A64, but when did a mere spot of rain deter the hardy citizens of Yorkshire from heading for the beach? As soon as we got to the first single-carriageway stretch just beyond  the York ring road the traffic was a bumper-to-bumper crawl, we weren’t going to get to the appointment in time so I ducked off the main road as soon as I could to go the far more scenic but round-about route through Sheriff Hutton.   To cut a very long story short the expedition involved a stressful two-hour, 53 mile, environmentally unfriendly round trip, all in aid of a highly efficient, less than 90 second, testing procedure.  And all the while the lucky 119 callers were being tested in Poppleton.

As I write, an SMS has just appeared on my mobile phone from the York Hospital Out-patients Department asking me to tell them about my Sunday experience.  I think I might just do that.

From David Maughan Brown in York: In praise of the NHS

June 20th

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.