When my father was diagnosed with a very aggressive brain tumour eight years ago and admitted to a hospital in Barnet, I flew back from Cairo to see him, anxious and nervous. He was just about walking and talking at this stage, but clearly with more and more difficulty. We visited him every day, grateful for the wonderful team of nurses who fed and cared for him and the harried doctors who tried to keep up updated. When he continued to deteriorate, they told us it was time to move him to a hospice. He spent the last two weeks of his life in this beautiful space, a tiny oasis in the suburbs of North London, where the staff did everything possible to make him – and us – comfortable.
When I found myself pregnant with my first child two years ago, I flew back home to England once again and moved back in with my mum. Thus began a seemingly endless cycle of trips to my GP and midwife, and the hospital in Enfield (where my mother had worked as a nurse for many years, and my sister gave birth to my beautiful nieces two decades ago), for all of the routine scans, and a few extra ones. Once again, I was nervous and anxious, but once again, the quality of care and support I received saw me through. I had a complication-free pregnancy and delivery in the end, and I will always remember the amazing team of medical staff – so many people of all colours and ethnicities and religions – who made that possible.
I say all this because we celebrated 70 years of the National Health Service in the UK this week and I wanted to express my love and gratitude for this incredible service. It’s not a perfect system – I don’t think it can ever be – but what it represents, and what it offers its citizens, is truly remarkable. Because of the NHS, we are able to go through the most challenging parts of our lives – the stuff of life itself – births, deaths and everything in between – without having to worry about how much each stage costs, or the bill at the end. When you visit hospitals in the developing world and see the vast divide between poorly funded government hospitals and the few private ones offering decent care, or hear your American friends worry constantly about their health care options, you appreciate this fact even more.
For all of its much-publicised problems, I think the principles on which the NHS was based – the creation of a welfare state to provide healthcare, education, and support for all of its citizens, from cradle to grave – remain more, rather than less valid today. In our increasingly divided world, they seek to level the playing field, so that every child can grow up assured of the right to be looked after, if they need it. They remain the thing that binds us as a society and remind us of our common humanity – we are all born, we will all die, and we all deserve to live our lives with dignity.
I’ve seen too many people in other countries deprived of this right, and too many politicians now who try and argue this is a conditional right that needs to be earned. It isn’t, and it should never be. The right to live and die with dignity is perhaps the most fundamental right there is, which is something the NHS – with all of its complicated and occasionally cumbersome bulk – still strives to deliver. I, for one, will always be grateful. I hope, one day, this is a right that’s afforded to all.