If you’ve ever had a colonoscopy then you might know that the surgical procedure itself is nowhere near as painful as maybe you’d first feared. I’ve had two colonoscopies in the last month and can now describe them from experience as no more than ‘uncomfortable.’
I’ll get to the precise whys and wherefores of my colonoscopies in a while, but what I’m mainly writing about is the enduring wonder and necessity of our National Health Service here in the UK. Here when we need it, cradle to grave, still free(ish) at the point of need and reassuringly impressive, despite everything. Sure, it’s under pressure for its own life and all of our’s from the wrong sort of government, and most of us could pick fault with something or other about its beleaguered self if we’d a mind to. But I don’t have a mind to.
The reason I don’t have a mind to being because I believe that in inventing and maintaining the NHS these past 70 years we are all of us, collectively, part of one of the human race’s greatest creations. Caring for each other in a planned and humane way through an organisation that most of us treasure more than any other. Which maybe we need to treasure more than ever now it so needs defending? And treasure it carefully and resolutely by telling each other our stories of how much it means to each of us?
So here, in defence and praise of the NHS and for all of us, is my contribution, my story.
Five years ago now I was diagnosed with a relatively rare blood condition, which needn’t detain us here other than to remember that my GP noticed it, got it diagnosed and quite possibly saved my life. One of the upshots of that diagnosis is that I get my blood regularly tested and so I know that from late last year I’ve become more anaemic than is good for me. Despite eating all the right things regularly my body is not retaining anything like as much iron as it should. So I’ve been getting tired, achy, more worn out than I should be and generally not feeling quite myself.
Tonics have been recommended and duly taken. As has time off for a rest, I’m good at that, and other help.
But come early summer, my iron levels still worryingly low, my specialist blood doctor at Broadgreen Hospital finally and strongly suggested a possibility she’d been mentioning all year. That she refer me to another specialist, this one in the Gastroenterology Department at the Royal Hospital, to have a close look at where and how I might be losing all this iron?
I’ll go into the present tense here as this referral, despite much reassurance, makes me immediately and deeply worried. My subsequent consultation at the Royal confirming that some sort of cancer might be what they’ll find:
‘Probably not and it’s better to know than not know.’
But I’m glad they’re being straight with me.
My appointment for the investigative procedure is set for only a week and a half away and I’m more sure now than ever that I love my life. The people and places in it. The walking, work, writing on here, reading, quiet cups of tea and the PhD I’m so looking forward to.
I get instructions in the post of what to eat and not eat in the days leading up to it. And packets of stuff to take the day before. To clear me out before my gastroscopy and colonoscopy.
Meanwhile life goes on and most people don’t know. Because there’s nothing to tell, yet, if you know me. So why worry you? The World Cup’s on, so I follow what’s what and cheerfully keep Sarah here informed, whether she wants it or not, about how all the Liverpool players are doing in the various international teams they’re playing for.
But underneath of course the worry never goes away.
The day before is not great as the four packets of laxative do their work. But mid-day on a Sunday, yes Sunday, early in July Sarah takes me into the Royal for the closest look into all of my digestive system anyone’s ever done.
I’m incredibly frightened and everyone in here is incredibly kind and confident, because they do this all the time. It’s not particularly the procedure that’s frightening me but what they might find. By this point anything short of cancer feels like it will be good news.
‘Top and tail’ I hear the nurses calling it as I’m got ready. Some throat spray to deaden the top end and a canula in my arm for the more serious sedatives for, well, the bottom end.
I’ll be awake as they’ll need me to move around a bit. But I’ve opted for the sedatives they’ve offered as I’m not going to be stupidly manly about all this.
Top first then. I bite on a mouth guard and the doctor feeds the tiny camera down my throat for a look. Which I can see because there are screens on either side of me. I could shut my eyes because I’m frightened, but I find I’m fascinated and I watch. Seeing that the inside of me looks much the same as the inside of my cheeks, pink, soft and wet.
There’s a slightly pinker patch in my oesophagus and it’s now I find that this camera thing can take samples while it’s down there. I still don’t know how.
Top end done it’s time for the tail. I’m asked to roll over on my side and, pulling my knees up, in we go. Such a strange feeling it is too. Something I can feel worming up inside of me, and watch as it turns round corners and emerges into the pink and clear spaces of my bowel and intestines.
The doctor says ‘I can’t see anything suspicious in here.’
And an immediate calm descends.
I know there’ll be waiting and results and it’s not over yet, but I watch now as an interested spectator. Knowing that the doctor didn’t say what he’s just said lightly, as he’s done this thousands of times. So I’m trusting his eyes and his judgment.
Back home I don’t feel much like eating yet, but it’s all done for now and life resumes. The World Cup finishes and none of the Liverpool players are injured.
Before we left the hospital we’d been given the printed observations so far and clear explanations of the samples taken and how and when I’d be contacted with further news.
The further news, though, turns out to be a request that they repeat the whole procedure, for a closer look, with even more clearing out prep than they’d done the first time around. Which of course raises my stress level right back up to maximum.
So I go to see my regular doctor, the one who noticed the blood condition back at the start of this story and she calms me down. We go through the results of the first procedure, that no cancer’s been found, and talk through the medical whys and wherefores of going in again until I’m ok with it all. She knows me and knows how I always want to know and understand the facts. She’s dead straight and I’m very grateful.
So this last Friday, four weeks after the first procedure, I’m on my way back to the Royal. Sarah’s working this time so I get the bus along Smithdown and walk across the top of the city to the Royal. It’s all feeling more ordinary this time, the NHS doing its job. I’m still a bit frightened about ‘the closer look’ but have more of a feeling of being grateful. So grateful the NHS is here and we can all do this as often as a clear diagnosis might take.
Later, as the top and the tail get done again the doctor and the nurse ask me, conversationally, if I have any holiday plans.
‘No’ I reply. ‘I’ve decided to stay home this summer and have two colonoscopies inside a month instead.’
They laugh and I nearly cry. I’m lying on my side, my knees drawn up, with a camera inside my intestines, being cared for as well as is humanly possible by one of the human race’s greatest achievements, the National Health Service.
That’s my NHS story then, so far. I believe our shared, lived experiences like this are an essential part of defending the NHS from the continuing assaults on it. On how it cares for every one of us, every day of our lives. So this story of mine is deliberately political as well as personal.
As things stand I don’t yet have the results of the second procedure and the apparently not particularly threatening ‘ectoscopic gastric mucosa’ they took samples of, and so don’t yet know why I’m not retaining iron. But I will know, and I know that it will be treated in the usual calmly logical way of things. Because that’s how we’ve long ago decided to run our lives and look after each other in this country. Intelligently and humanely, for one and all of us.
The NHS, it’s really good idea.
I’ve consciously not named and credited the various people involved in this story. Not because they’re not brilliant and not because I’m not grateful. They are and I am. But because what all of these are doing for me is what all of yours would do for you at your moments of need. The NHS, there for us all, every day of our lives, from cradle to grave.