Carry on nurse

In Fulham Palace Road, the darkest hour is just before dawn, says Philip McGough.

I had bragged that I would be fitted with a titanium alloy hip of space satellite quality to return me to Fred Astaire class mobility. On returning from hospital I announced that I now had a ceramic hip joint. My children, sensitive, supportive, suggested that the NHS had used one of their old tea mugs. When I objected, they said, “Oh, so you think you got Ming porcelain, do you?”

Being re-hipped was an informative experience. The technology is superb. It began with the epidural anaesthetic from the ultra-competent consultant anaesthetist, a woman in love with her work who seemed chuffed to find someone interested in what she was doing. (I suggested a simple mechanism to help patients keep themselves steady during the introduction of a needle into the spine.) The lower half of the body is knocked out, but one avoids the total unconsciousness of a general anaesthetic with its resulting nausea.

Over the next hour and a half, they cut off the top of my right femur and drilled a hole down into the length of it. The hole becomes the anchorage for a ceramic ball which is received by a ceramic cup fitted to the pelvis, thus creating a new ceramic, hip ball joint. Brilliant! 24 hours later I stood up and walked tentatively. 48 hours later I was walking up and down the corridor. 72 hours later I was causing disruption and discharged. So, in its delivery of acute, intervention medicine our health system shows itself to be marvellous.

On the other hand, concerning the chronic, or follow-up, or however we call the longer term side of things, the picture is not so good. My time in a three-bed room was miserable.

During the first night I found myself staring at a greyish-blue scene. It was both strikingly clear yet indecipherable. It did not move. I thought it must be a computer screen. But I could find no means to make it change, no mouse, no keys. Then I realized that I was awake and staring at the room lit by that awful hospital glow. It was terrifying. In this half-light, half-life, of a night of half-sleep that seems endless, voices echo, half-recognized people lift my arm and inject me or take blood pressure as I lie sweating, longing for dawn. Of my companions, one was quite fun and the other was a Catholic priest. Day and night he howled, farted, belched and vomited. Day and night, alarm bells rang from his bed and nurses rushed in and out with buckets and bedpans. Two women, one vastly fat on crutches, the other mouse-like, visited him constantly – visiting hours were ignored for him. They held his hands and said they loved him and muttered the rosary with him. Two other priests came – in civvies, but I could spot them. They said: “Mrs Henderson was at mass this morning,” and “Mrs Ferguson sends her love,” and “Mrs Anderson is using her influence with Mrs Donaldson to get you a room for two weeks in a lovely nursing home where you’ll be properly looked after and fed.” Apart from “Oh Dear, oh dear!”, the remark that his cornflakes could do with more sugar, and the shout of “Viva Franco!” to a Spanish nurse, he said almost nothing. (When my wife visited, he heard us talking French and yelled “Vive la République!”). Claiming agoraphobia, I kept drawn the curtain that separated us. I never let slip that I was once a Catholic monk. The third night was too long to bear. I sneaked off on my zimmer frame to the Day Room. I opened the window, breathed the cool air, rejoiced in the sound of traffic building up on Fulham Palace Road and waited for dawn to save me.

The food was so bad it was puzzling. One thought, it would actually be easier for it to be better.

I was discharged having experienced fantastic surgery and three days of awfulness – although, as you can tell, the latter is already becoming merely the excuse for a bit of a yarn. I will return to see the osteopathic surgery team and associated physiotherapists in six weeks time. Meanwhile I am on my own. “Any problem – see your GP”. And of course, seeing one’s GP entails waiting for, at best, a day or two. So, once again, it is the non-acute, the chronic and long-term that is weak.

I also understand that hospitals suffer problems of infection. All in all then, they thus seem places to be avoided. Yet they are the cornerstone of our health service. News of a hospital closure incites public outrage. I am a supporter of the NHS and believe that health should be delivered publicly. But should it be totally free at the point of delivery and delivered mostly by large hospitals? I now have doubts. However any major change in our health service will be bedevilled by party politics. The Tory party cannot be trusted with health reforms as they would not be driven by the ideal of public good. While Labour are unclear as to whether the public services exist to provide service or to create jobs. I presume we have big hospitals because this is the most cost efficient way to provide a range of treatments. Or are they simply an expression of conservative thinking? (cf the Admiralty rejects a design for new destroyers that is not the traditional, romantic, long, lean, “sea-wolf” in conception, etc.)

It is going to be difficult to argue for fundamental reform without being accused of being anti-NHS or anti-public health. However, I know that in the bar, or at the dinner table, I will to want to get the argument going. It can join, “Was I justified in voting for Tony Blair in the Labour Party leadership election of July 1994?” and “Wales hammered England at Twickenham in 1936, a triumph only marred by the one-eyed and biased ref who awarded England more points,” as a possible medium sized ding-dong between the salad and the cheese.

Philip McGough is recovering and is as comfortable as can be expected for a man of his years. Philip is an actor, now retired, and former Catholic monk. He is currently working on his memoir, “The Pope and Al Capone”.



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