The NHS is turning 70. No matter who you are, the NHS will have touched your life somehow over the years, probably on the day you were born when a midwife helped you into the world. I grew up with the NHS all around me. Growing up, we lived right next to the hospital and most of my family worked there. Even 40 years ago things were different to the way they are now. Lots of long wards that had a funny smell that was somewhere between cooked food and detol. Nurses or doctors would sit in the office and have a quick smoke on their breaks without anyone batting an eyelid, and there were still wards that allowed patients to smoke in bed if they were unable to get to the smoke rooms.
There are very few people around who remember life before the NHS, my gran is one of those people. She grew up in an age where people had to pay the doctor and where the poor had to suffer. At 16 she came to Burnley from Northern Ireland to work at Victoria Hospital to train as a nurse. The nurses quarters faced onto Melville Street and they were shared rooms, but life was strict and they were worked to the bone so no one cared that the beds were hard! There had been no factories where she grew up, so she had no idea what the racket was that awoke her on her first morning. Hundreds of clogged feet clattering down the cobbled roads altogether to work. Lots of friendships were made in those dorms and on the wards, and many of the nurses that trained with my gran worked in the NHS their whole lives. They were special; the first nurses to work in the NHS, and she stayed there her whole working life.
As a girl I was in and out of the wards chatting to patients in a way that wouldn’t be allowed today. My gran had previously worked in psychiatric, but settled on the geriatric wards as a Staff Nurse. The ladies on 8A were there for their end of days. These were women that were too frail for care homes or needed too much medical care. I would be up and down talking to them all, probably the only kid they saw as in those days you didn’t take kids visiting with you. I have a lot of good memories. A lady that made me a cassette of The Lion and Albert to listen to when I was poorly, and I still have a rabbit that an old lady on the ward said should be passed onto me when she died. The rabbit is called Rufus and he’s got big bloomers and a handmade pinafore. Rufus had travelled the world with that lady who, in her youth, had been an international ballerina.
There was a lovely man called Tommy Heseltine who came to our house every day from the hospital. He had a learning disability and a stammer and lived in a part of the hospital where life time residents stayed. In his childhood, the system stuck kids in institutions for things like that, so he’d lived in the hospital all his life. My gran made him a daily visitor to our house. He had a cuppa and a biscuit then went to the shop for my grandad’s paper. My grandma had other friends from the hospital too. Janet had been a patient in there much of her adult life for mental health problems. In her younger days they would deal with them as an in-patient, but in her later years she lived in her own home. She was a liflong friend of my grans until she passed away a few years ago. She was another ‘tea, biscuits and errand’ visitor, and being able to feel she was valuable and had a friend meant a lot to her.
Things may be different now, but these memories tell me that the personal relationship between patients and those responsible for their care is tremendously important. We need to make sure that the small things aren’t forgotten when it comes to transforming the NHS. Treatments may be better and faster than they were 70 years ago but we shouldn’t forget what the compassion and dedication of the staff means to those they care for.
Happy Birthday NHS!