I have had a nice letter from La Featherstone – would I like to fill in a questionnaire about NHS provision in Haringey? I would love to! I am a national and I have health! So I sit on the sofa alternately playing with notes for Saturday’s mayoral hustings, stuffing chocolate fingers into my mouth (Gordon Brown doesn’t seem to realise he holds the immediate future of weight control chez Mortimer in the palm of his hand; if an election is called then it’s chippie chips for dinner for a month) and completing said survey.
I don’t know whether I’m just exceptionally naive and literal but I do have real problems with these things. In the end I skip over some of the questions about whether or not I think the NHS is well run and spends money wisely. Because (whisper it) I don’t bloody know, do I. I could probably identify six news stories on just this point from the last month alone, I could trot off a string of statistics that have been collected in a significantly different way every year since 1952, I could cite telling anecdotes from my own and others’ experience (in fact, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m shortly going to do just that), and indeed I could probably write a fiery, polemical tract in either direction. But since, try as I might, I have been unable to read every document ever produced by every Primary Care Trust, you actually might as well ask a nutter at a bus stop as me. Their answer would bear holistically upon the question just as validly as mine would.
I know, I know, if one were to demand that everyone be well-informed before taking a decision then democracy would become impossible. And indeed if I took my own philosophy to its logical conclusion I would never vote. Hmph. This internal torture will run and run, I can tell.
Post-existential crisis, things go much more smoothly with the notes, the chocolate fingers and the survey, until I start encountering the smattering of local party policy questions. Call me Miss Party Pooper but I do wonder if these things could perhaps be a little less pointed, I’m sure it puts off floating voters, viz:
Q18: The Lib Dems are worried that not enough thought has been put into providing public transport to the Hospital site. Do you support their campaign to bring more bus routes to the site? If Yes, go to REAL Q 19 and have a sweetie, If No, go to IMPLIED Q 19…
IMPLIED Q19: Why not, you selfish shit?
But I digress. The point is that although I am able via the magic of ticky-boxes to rubbish my doctor pretty effectively in terms of waiting times for appointments (seven days is my record), I am still left feeling a little unspent because there is, quite understandably, no question framed along the following lines:
Q 21 Have you ever been turned away from a surgery reception on the point of collapse, and were you seriously a bit worried for your safety as a result, and was it icky-nasty-horrible-horrible, and do you want to tell me all about it?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes, yes, very, and yes pleeeeeeee-eeee-eeeease.
It was August 2006 and I had been having the odd bit of trouble with asthma, which I thought had pretty much left me years before. On the day in question – and I still have no idea why it happened – I woke up wheezing like a superannuated bloodhound and clutching at the bedside table for inhalers. Which weren’t there because I hadn’t had a new prescription for ages because I hadn’t had any symptoms for ages.
So I ring my doctor on the dot of nine and wheeze my problem to the receptionist. I don’t have any inhalers! I feel like a submarine is trying to negotiate my windpipe! Do I want an appointment with the asthma nurse in half an hour? Yes, yes please!
The critical word here, as NHS fans will have spotted, is nurse, but I pay this no heed because I am too busy sitting against a wall and breathing into a paper bag with my lower back and diaphragm in a constant state of pointless spasm as they try and persuade my lungs to suck down air that just ain’t coming. At half nine I totter out – the doctor is thankfully less than a minute’s walk – and collapse in the waiting room. I am called almost immediately. Gawd bless the NHS!
The nurse is having trouble with the computer system. She can’t get into my records. “I’m only a locum,” she says miserably. I don’t care about your working pattern! I can’t breathe! Do you need my records to diagnose what is currently happening? Can I not have some drugs? Oh no, no, she can’t prescribe.
You can’t what?
Back to front of house, where I wait for about five minutes bent double and making noises like a suction pump while the man in front of me chats to the receptionist (me and my bloody good manners; I spit on them). The receptionist is grave and bovine. “Can I help?” she says at length.
“Is- can- I- need-…. inhaler… Is- Doctor’s-… appy’ment?” I am having real trouble speaking now, mostly because I am starting to panic a bit and panicking is the worst thing you can do with an asthma attack. I mean, I know it’s not a severed leg, but y’know, couldn’t someone maybe display a modicum of concern? Do even a little bit of lateral thinking ere I pass out? There are almost certainly, knowing the demographic round here, fifty houses in the surgery’s remit with asthmatic kids. Fifty inhalers are hiding in the streets around me right now, giggling! They must have some sort of stock on the premises. They must be able to get the doctor out for two minutes to write me a prescription so I can go over the road and collapse on the chemist’s floor instead.
Naturally I am not outlining any of these options with my customary three-point clarity, and I am also having to prompt every separate neuron transaction in the receptionist’s brain. No, there are no more appointments today, no, they do not keep emergency medication. After she has dismissed all my suggestions for curing myself and is sitting waiting to see what the strange girl who can’t breathe is going to do next, I babble “Well-… the-… Where can I go?” a little bit tearfully.
“Well,” she says, distractedly looking at the queue behind me, “There’s two hospitals with A&E rooms.”
“An-… wha-… are-… the-… call-?”
She thinks for a moment. “The Whittington and the somewhere else.”
“An-… whi-… is-… neary-…?”
“The Whittington.” And she turns to the next patient!
I seize hold of the counter with a clawlike hand and wheeze insistently, “Cn. Yo. Writ. Down. Adrs. An. Telfo. Nm.”
She does this on a post-it note with a slightly odd sideways look at me as though I am being eccentrically troublesome, and clutching the bit of yellow paper that may or may not save me, I stagger out into the street again on the verge of tears and dizzy with lack of oxygen.
And of course it was all okay, because a friend is on her half-term and she comes and fetches me to A&E, and they take one look at me and wheel over the drip and hook me up to an air supply and I am high as a kite for an hour while my blood re-oxygenates or whatever it is doing.
But it was unpleasant, and I got a nastily powerful glimpse of what age and infirmity is like, particularly in the context of low income. As soon as basic fitness deserted me, I was completely helpless and at the mercy of this cretinous woman because I didn’t have a car or know anybody with one, I didn’t have a partner to rush home from work and take control, and I wasn’t sure whether I had enough money in t’bank to get a taxi from Muswell Hill to Archway, even assuming I could have made it to the nearest cashpoint and then found a taxi. And I was lucky this was happening in half-term or my friend wouldn’t have been nearby either.
Withal, one of La Featherstone’s questions is Do you think it’s important that elderly people have transport provided for them to and from hospital?
And I tick the box marked Yes, with bells on.