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.