Monday, 19 March 2018

Valuing the NHS

I’m surprised at how regularly I meet people who complain about the NHS. To many people I suppose it is a large and relatively faceless organisation. And it does have undoubted shortcomings, such as the waiting times to see specialists for non-urgent treatment. But my experiences of the NHS have been overwhelmingly excellent and I’m always ready to speak up for it. So this week I was very sad to learn of the death of Stephen Hawking, one of the highest profile advocates and campaigners for the NHS.

Despite being diagnosed at 21 with motor neurone disease and told that he had only a short time to live, Stephen Hawking continued to work at the highest level in his field of science for a further 55 years. And he was very clear about who to thank for his long life: ‘I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment from the NHS without which I would not have survived.’ It took undoubted grit and determination too, but he consistently made light of his disability. In his later years he was an active campaigner for the NHS and used his public position to speak out against underfunding and privatisation.

Stephen Hawking’s campaigning led to several high-profile rows with Jeremy Hunt. A government minister who perhaps should be renamed in terms of the famous Radio 4 interview in which he was introduced to the listeners by James Naughtie as Jeremy Cunt. A spectacular, but hardly inappropriate, slip. The essence of the row was about the nature of the evidence that Hunt was claiming as his basis for a new health policy. If you are going to have a public argument about the nature of evidence, it was certainly inadvisable to choose to have this row with one of the best scientific minds in the UK. Suffice it to say that Hawking duly exposed major factual holes in government health policy. And in the last few months of his life he had become involved in a legal challenge to Hunt’s plans for further NHS privatisation.

Hawking’s view of the current shortcomings of the NHS was that they had arisen from persistent underfunding and creeping privatisation. In a healthcare system that is under massive and continual strain not all treatment can be delivered well at the same time. So urgent care is prioritised, which leads to unacceptable delays in non-urgent care. This has been underlined by a series of reports that have argued that long waiting times for some patients can only be improved by an injection of new funding.

Over the past seven years, I’ve had four major surgical procedures and have spent ten weeks in four different acute hospitals. As a cancer patient I was a priority. The treatment I received was of the highest quality and in the main it was very successful. I have been all-clear of cancer for sixteen months and I will be scanned every four months to make sure that I continue along this road. Whilst my story is not as spectacular as that of Stephen Hawking, my treatment has been life-saving and I have nothing but praise for the work of the NHS. For despite being under great pressure they do a fantastic job.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

After Apple Pruning

The banks of snow that trapped us at home for five days have largely gone. Proof positive, if any more was needed, that March is a month which faces two ways.  Last week it was blizzards, snowdrifts and minus 10 C, this week it is daffodils, lambs and plus 10 C. So I took the opportunity to embark on a gardening job that had needed to be put off for a long while, pruning the apple tree.

Each winter I’d prune the apple tree at the top of our driveway. This is when it needs to be done, as the tree is dormant. Because of the surgery on my ribs in September, I had put this job off to January. But then I didn’t embark on it because of the troublesome pain in my hip and groin. With a cold and snowy slice of winter having only just gone, today seemed the last good opportunity to prune the tree this year.

Over the past year the apple tree had grown many long shoots, some about three feet tall, which were mostly growing straight up. The task was to remove all of these with my loppers, cutting the shoots down to just above the buds, where the apples would grow from. The purpose of the pruning being to concentrate growth around the buds. I noticed that these buds were beginning to show purple. The white blossom could not be far off from appearing.

In previous years I’d cut large branches from the centre of the tree, trying to achieve the preferred shape – like a wine glass. This had encouraged the tree to grow laterally; it is now about six feet tall and twenty feet across. In recent years the tree has produced some good crops of apples. The other determining factor was the weather during the blossoming time. If it was mild then there would be plenty of insects, especially bumble-bees rising from their winter hibernation, to pollinate the tree. If the weather was cold then there would be few insects, little pollination and few apples in September.

My smaller loppers are about two feet long. I collected them from the shed and sharpened them with a file. As I did this I realised that I would be working my arms and back for real for the first time since the surgery on my ribs. I began to prune tentatively and found that I was able to use the loppers without pain in my left side. But my upper arms soon became tired. I paused for a short rest after twenty minutes. Then I got the small steps and began to lop the higher shoots. I steadily worked my way around the tree. At the end of an hour of lopping I stopped. I’d pruned most of the tree. My arms and back ached and I could do no more. I was certainly out of practice, but I was happy that I’d been able to undertake this tough gardening job without any problems from my ribs. I returned indoors, T made me a lovely Sunday brunch and I sat in the armchair afterwards feeling pleased with myself.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Snow Joke

We have been snowed in for five days now. There is a general covering of six inches of snow which has drifted in places to waist height. The lane below the house is impassable due to snow drifts. We have not been out of the house since Tuesday, other than to walk the dog during lulls between the blizzards. The snow on local roads has been compacted by tractors, the only vehicle safe to use hereabouts, even making walking extremely slippery. The forecast is for the thaw to set in tomorrow, but given how much snow is lying it looks like we may not be able to get out of the house by car until Tuesday at the earliest.

At first our confinement seemed rather exciting. We looked out at the snow falling and checked how deep it was. We cancelled outside commitments, turned up the heating and focused on things we had been putting off. I edited my poetry and T wrote her journal. Our fridge was full as T had taken heed of the warnings about the Siberian storm and had stocked up well (our nearest shop is a mile and half away on ungritted roads). The oil tank was filled too, as it had run down two weeks earlier and had been replenished. We were in our very own snowy retreat away from the world.

On the first day an inch or so of snow fell. Then, during the night, another six inches fell. This was whipped up by an icy easterly gale and drifted heavily. After this some worries began to set in. First we feared for Rex, who sleeps in a kennel in the garden. But the next morning he was frolicking in the snow. The kennel is filled with straw and in a sheltered place. Rex has long, thick fur and is very hardy. We gave him extra food and warm milk. He was delighted. Second we worried about the power going off, our cosy retreat would become Arctic pretty quickly without electricity to run the oil-fired central heating. Perhaps the phone and internet might also become cut off and then we would truly be on retreat from the world. And fresh snow has arrived every day.

We read reports of the great snowstorm of 1947, when the snow was up to roof level in many places. Some Irish villages were cut off for the best part of a month and the government asked the RAF to come in and drop food parcels. We also noted the great disparity in media reporting. The English and Southern Irish media gave due weight to the seriousness of the red-warning snowstorm. Reporting teams were sent out to cover the blizzards, road blockages and the excellent work of the emergency services to keep hospitals and other essential services going. There were reports of doctors walking in to hospital for hours in order to do urgent cancer surgery and mountain rescue teams delivering essential drugs to people cut off in rural homes.

And what did the NI broadcast media report? How much people were enjoying a snow day off with video footage of kids tobogganing on an inch of snow at Stormont. The tone of their snow reportage was trivial and light-hearted throughout. Why we wondered? Perhaps because the Belfast-based editors didn’t look beyond their own noses and only responded to the light snowfall they had at their suburban homes?  Perhaps because the heavy snowfalls mainly affected South Down and Armagh and these places were rural and their predicament was remote and did not merit inclusion? Perhaps because the film crews couldn’t be arsed to go there because they would have to experience discomfort in order to get these stories and there were much easier ones to be had close at hand?  Whatever the reason, the local broadcast media coverage seemed rather lazy and inept. And as you can see from this semi-rant, like in the Scandinavian winter, perhaps paranoia is beginning to seep in.