Second Day of Advent: The NHS

This was not the post I expected to write today, but circumstances do indeed alter cases. Yesterday I had a very unpleasant and stressful evening, and at first it didn’t seem as though much about it could make me happy.

Ar tea-time Sophia experienced an unfortunate altercation between her head and a wooden floor. It was a horrible bang, and she obviously started screaming immediately. I picked her up to comfort her, and happened to be standing in front of a mirror, so saw with horror the colour literally drain from her face (you always see this phrase in books and I always thought it a little exaggerated, but it turns out not to be). Her eyes then closed, and I felt her body go all floppy as she slumped against my shoulder. It was probably only a matter of a few seconds that she was unconscious, but it felt like an hour. I was carrying her through to the dining room, intending to lie her on the sofa in the recovery position when she opened her eyes and started screaming again.

She’d actually done something very similar after a fall a few weeks ago and I knew that she needed to be properly checked out. I phoned my husband and got him to head home, and then whizzed round the house with screaming baby in one arm trying to put bits and pieces in a bag to take to the hospital. Meanwhile my husband had phoned our GP and had it confirmed that we did indeed need to take her to A&E. He’d also booked me a taxi, so we got that, poor Sophia still screaming, and I dropped Anna off at my friend’s house on the way.

whipps xWe were in A&E for nearly four hours before, thankfully, Sophia was examined and declared fit to come home, and I was provided with a long list of symptoms to look out for over the next 48 hours; just in case my stress levels weren’t already high enough! The hospital was manically busy. At one point the fire alarm went off – presumably set off deliberately, because over the din there was a repeated urgent announcement for security to go to main A&E IMMEDIATELY. There were barely enough seats, and anxious parents were cradling poorly children on their laps because there weren’t enough cubicles. Make no mistake, this is a system under severe stress.

But through all this, every member of staff I came across, from the receptionist who joked with me that a baby making that much noise would definitely be ok, through to the gentle and sympathetic nurse to the doctor who managed to be competent and reassuring without being paternalistic or patronising, was incredible. They are doing such a difficult job. Even with unlimited resources and unfailingly courteous patients this is a job in which a bad day at work can involve having to tell parents their child has just died; which kind of puts accidentally deleting half your Excel spreadsheet into perspective. But there are not unlimited resources, and, sadly, patients and their families often take out frustrations and problems on NHS staff. And don’t get me started on pay. Junior doctors have just had to fight not to have their pay cut – pay which seems pretty good at a glance but which follows seven years of training, ridiculously long and unsociable hours, and one of the most responsible jobs anyone can undertake and is still a fraction of that earned by, say, an investment banker. Thankfully they seem to have won the fight for the time being at least, but it can’t do much to improve morale to have to fight like that. Healthcare Assistants, on whom the NHS depend massively, earn between £7 and £8 an hour. Barely a living wage, yet they are the people, in work in the middle of the night, who were reassuring anxious parents, playing with vomit covered babies, taking blood from grouchy wriggly toddlers and many other jobs which most people earning several times their salary would recoil from.

We are so bloody lucky to have the NHS and the staff who work in it. I should declare an interest as, in a previous life, I was a manager in the NHS myself. No, we’re not all grey-suited, clipboard wielding, budget-cutting automatons with hearts of stone, whatever Holby City likes to suggest. Most managers, like most clinicians, are working in the NHS because they care about the patients and their families and want to make a positive difference to people’s lives. We get all this, free at point of need. I didn’t have to calculate last night whether I could afford to take my baby to hospital. When my mum had cancer a few years ago we didn’t have, alongside all the upset and anxiety which that illness inevitably provokes, the worry as to whether her insurance would pay up for the best treatment. She was operated on in a world-leading hospital within a couple of weeks of the diagnosis being made. This is amazing, and is well worthy of a place in my Advent Calendar as something that makes me happy. But we mustn’t forget that the NHS is not adequately funded. Far from being wasteful, we spend less per head of population on healthcare than almost every other developed country, and yet have far from the worst health outcomes. A lot of that is due to the fantastic staff who go the extra mile (or ten) every time. Imagine, then, if higher-rate taxpayers paid just a little bit more. Then perhaps there could be enough cleaning staff so that, on a busy night in paediatric A&E a cubicle wouldn’t have to be out of use for three hours because it needed a deep clean after an infectious patient had used it earlier.

A&E in the NHS is a great social leveller. There are very few private hospitals who will welcome you when your child starts turning blue with a severe asthma attack at 3am, still fewer who will take you in and resuscitate you when you collapse on the street with a heart attack or lose a leg and a few pints of blood in a traffic accident. We really are all in it together, so let’s all contribute adequately and fairly so that the brilliant staff can get on and save our lives for us. As the poster I had on my wall as a teenager said: ‘Roll on the day when hospitals have all the resources they need, and the army runs a jumble sale to buy a new missile’.

I have sneaked a slightly (ahem) political blog into my calendar – as I said, circumstances alter cases. But what unquestionably makes me happy is that there are so many lovely, dedicated, professional, compassionate and unselfish people – doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, midwives, radiographers, physiotherapists, dieticians, occupational therapists, receptionists, secretaries, managers, porters, cleaners, kitchen staff, and many more – working for each and every one of us, every day, all over the country. A massive thank you from me to them.



  1. Hi Helen – I hope Sophia is ok after her fall and that your nerves have settled down following the shock of it all. I have to agree with you that we do indeed have wonderful, caring health workers in our hospitals. I recently sat all day in A&E with a dear friend and saw how hardworking and caring the staff were as they dealt with both her and her elderly husband. They kept us up to date with everything they were doing as they sought a bed on a ward for her. I too am happy that we have got medical care available to us day and night and although under resourced, the staff are so dedicated and professional x


    • Sophia seems to be doing fine today, thank you. She had an epic three-hour nap this afternoon, but has woken up her normal bubbly little self. It is a shame, as in your friend’s case, that beds aren’t always available as soon as they are needed, but the staff do do everything they possibly can to make the difference. x


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