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OPINION

'At its best, the NHS is simply without parallel'

My father died three weeks ago.

Just reading that sentence back makes me feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach – he has left a huge void that will be difficult to fill.

His death wasn’t unexpected - his health had been declining for some time, but that takes away none of the shock of losing him. However, this is not a comment about grief and bereavement – it is about his experience of the NHS.

Having seen a Channel 4 programme last week knocking state monopolies including the health service, it seems timely to point out that this particular state monopoly extended Dad’s life by years and supported him with expertise and compassion as his needs became increasingly complex.

A growing list of health problems in the past decade meant that Dad had regular contact with a range of healthcare professionals in primary and secondary settings, and the overwhelming majority gave him excellent care. His will to live at least until my disabled mother’s future care was assured meant he soldiered on when his quality of life was on the floor - and the NHS supported him every step of the way.

He was on the lists of so many consultants and nurse specialists he could have qualified for a loyalty card: cardiac, renal, ophthalmic, orthopaedic and haematological consultants, diabetes and heart failure specialist nurses and twice weekly visits from the community matron. He was admitted to hospital as an emergency with suspected heart attacks and a suspected stroke, and on each occasion received excellent care, a panoply of diagnostic tests, and was kept alive by a bewildering array of drugs that his GP and pharmacist regularly reviewed.

All these professionals cared for Dad with compassion and humour, even when constant pain and increasing debility turned him from an amiable and quick witted character with a wicked sense of humour into an anxious and often short-tempered old man railing against his body’s decline.

Even on his final admission to the Royal Blackburn Hospital, when a combination of renal failure, heart failure and COPD made it unlikely that he could be stabilised, staff in the cardiac care unit did what they could to enable him to go back home to Mum. When it became obvious that they could do no more, their end of life care was outstanding. They ensured he was as comfortable as possible, maintained his dignity with gentle care and took the time to get to know the man beyond the multiple conditions.

Their care for the rest of the family was also outstanding. When I asked for a no-holds-barred report on Dad’s condition they gave it to me in the privacy of the sister’s office. They also judged perfectly the amount of comfort I needed as I absorbed the news: a couple of hugs, a box of tissues, a cup of tea and time alone to compose myself.

The only blip came when Dad was understandably transferred out of the high premium CCU bed as his condition deteriorated. My brother went to visit and found him in a noisy six-bed bay on a medical ward, where a computer system had no doubt identified an empty bed. However, when David pointed out firmly that this was no place for a life to end and that his last hours should be in an environment where he had privacy and dignity, the staff agreed. Within an hour he was in a side room where we could sit and say our goodbyes undisturbed as he slipped peacefully away.

Of course, the NHS isn’t perfect – no organisation of its size could hope to be. However, the amount of care Dad received – at goodness knows what financial cost - and the compassion with which it was delivered by often overstretched staff, will stay with me for many years.

So this is my thank you to the individuals who were directly involved with Dad and to the service as a whole. Never forget the difference you make, or let anyone tell you that the independent sector or systems overseas do things better than you. At its best the NHS is simply without parallel.

Readers' comments (7)

  • What a wonderful story to hear, for once, about the excellent nhs care and courage of this writer to give us this feedback.

    There is so much negative news about nurses and the NHS in the press at the moment which is not helped by the NT whose articles and comments make very depressing reading.

    My Dad collapsed and died 15 years ago, which still seems to me like yesterday, on the tennis court at the age of 82 on a freezing day in February after winning the first set. His partner, and a family friend, was a nurse who took care of him whilst waiting for an ambulance to rush him to our local hospital where he worked as a consultant physician until his retirement. I think he died in the ambulance - all the information I received at the time and my own ability to take it in and question the details are just chaotic memories now.

    I never reflected on the care he received after his collapse as I have always taken it for granted that it would have been of the very best as both my parents and myself had witnessed throughout our medical and nursing careers and hopefully also given ourselves to our patients.

    However, for the first time the other day having read so many negative articles in the press and in the NT I suddenly questioned how he may have been treated on his arrival at the very busy district general hospital. I heard that in the ambulance an unsuccessful attempt was made to save him but it was too late and in view of his age and the highly successful life he lead, so be it. But although I had until now no reason to believe otherwise, I just hope and pray that the treatment he received was appropriate and with the greatest dignity. I was abroad at the time I received the news on the evening of his death. Although I was in all day long our nurse friend who had been with him and who then kindly supported my mother was unable, for some unkown reason, to get hold of me earlier on the phone. However, I managed to get a flight home early the next day but did not visit the hospital immediately. His colleagues wanted to arrange a chapel service for him but for some reason this never materialised. My Mum and I were in so much shock that I think that they did not wish to push the matter and the hospital chaplain conducted a service at the Crematorium for us which, at the time, was as much as we could cope with.

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  • The continuation of the my story above was not so rosy. I had a hard time coping with my own grief and that of my mother as well was an extra burden. She had been completely dependent on my father and seemed to expect me to step into her shoes and make all the decisions for both of us. this was very difficult after so many years of living away from home. and as much as I loved her we quarelled. Sadly she died 16 months later.

    Although I was not in the NHS at the time the often uncaring attitude towards colleagues seems to be the same among nurses in many places. My big shock came after I returned to work and my very colleagues, always very caring towards their patients, briefly acknowledged my bereavement and then it was business as usual. I had to return to work rapidly although my boss had kindly given me a little extra time off as the statutory 2 days for a death of a close relative were insufficient to fly to the UK and back and arrange a funeral. I would not have returned before that even if it had meant my resignation from an excellent job which I had enjoyed as I put my family above all else and now I suddenly had other family responsibilities.

    Back at work, I found it very difficult to focus and was not fully functional and was met with criticism all round from my new young colleagues. There was nobody who seemed to understand and nobody to turn to for support. It was such a shock to me that nurses only care for their patients but do not extend this caring attitude to their colleagues. If I saw a colleague with problems

    I always had a totally different attitude and now even more so than before as grief has deepened my understanding of suffering. I also realise how lucky I was before as, outside work I lead a very carefree life.

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  • I agree wholehearted with the article, unfortunately these stories don't sell newspapers as stories of scandal do. I have nursed on the continent and have nurse colleagues in America and I too say our NHS has no parallel, neither do British Nurses who are known in all nursing circles internationally for our compassion and hands on approach to patient care. We may not have modern hospitals and up-to-date teaching facilities as other countries do, but we have the element of care integrated into our nursing culture, respect and patient advocacy second to none.
    Sad to say though, this is under threat and in rapid decline. Hopefully there will be a turnaround in the situation and a rebirth of our unique nursing qualities.

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  • Thank you for sharing your beautiful story, I am so pleased to hear about excellent care... Nursing needs more of these stories published!

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  • Thanks for sharing your story, I couldn't believe it as I read, it's a total mirror of my circumstances, except I am fortunate enough not to have actually lost my Dad yet, but that day is coming. His will to live for my mum, who is in advanced stage of Alzheimer's in a nursing home, is incredible. So far, his care has been excellent, we'll see what happens as things progress but I certainly have no complaints so far, but, like another said, these stories don't sell newspapers

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  • God, what a moving story. My father's death in a madly busy NHS medical ward has had a huge effect on me and the way I nurse.
    Despite a demanding "take" the nurses left him as he was while my family collected me from a nearby airport, having left my own ward to catch a flight home.
    When I thanked the staff for doing so under such pressure they told me that such a dignified death deserved a wait for his daughter. I will never forget that.
    This is the kind of treatment which makes Brirtish and Irish nurses so special.

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  • I am so pleased, for the author, of such a moving experience, who has wonderful memories during the years before and at the time of her Father's death. My 20 plus years of working in the NHS are surrounded by wonderful experiences and memories of my colleagues, all of whom cared deeply for each person and their relatives that they helped.
    Each health care worker would be ashamed if any complaint was made and would move to extreme lengths to ensure that the care offered met with the patients and families approval.
    I now work in abroad and sadly see disheartening changes in health care providers attitudes towards their patients and families. In fact the healthcare system has had to buy customer care service education for the establishment for this very reason. The changes in health care education and provision have a large part to play in the development of detachment from our caring roles. Not to mention society's focus on the importance of material achievements to the detriment of emotional solace which is immeasurable in tangible terms.
    This family's experience shows' clearly where the focus ought to be - on the patient and family's needs and wishes.

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