On a beautiful Sunday morning I was looking out on a perfect olive tree in front of a turquoise crescent of water at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, with a couple of overnight local fishing boats bobbing gently against a perfect blue sky without a single cumulus. Yet I was in pain. Little did I know that, in the dark depths of the night before, I had an ulcer that had begun a sinister haemorrhage. The beautiful sun rising outside was in total ignorance of my uglifying seepage inside.
My wife acted decisively for me. She called a friend who lent us his jet and, within four hours, we landed at RAF Northolt. I stood up to disembark but, not realising how weak I was, collapsed in the narrow gangway of the Global Express plane. I could not move and it took four strong men to slither me out of the plane on a sliding sheet into an ambulance. And here the miracle, like a magic carpet, began.
They took me to Hillingdon hospital. Had I managed those five steps out of the plane myself, I would have made it to the London clinic where a private room was waiting for me. This was now an extreme emergency and the NHS hospital was the only option.
Yet the moment I was wheeled into that hospital, I knew this was nothing like my preconception of an NHS A&E department, about which we hear so much criticism. Immediately, two doctors hovered over me with three nurses close by. I was swung into one of those blue-curtained spaces and asked a series of precise and pertinent questions.
Within minutes, they had diagnosed internal bleeding, and I was whisked upstairs to intensive care where I was given a blood transfusion. No hesitation, no dithering: three bags full, like three blah blah black sheep, straight into my system. More doctors came and asked more relevant questions. Within another hour, I was taken for a CT scan, and another half-hour an endoscopy with an anaesthetist whereupon they identified a bleeding ulcer which they treated with immediate effect.
The long and the short of it was five doctors and 10 nurses saved my life at Hillingdon that Sunday afternoon.
I was moved into a general intensive care unit that evening and, for the first time in my life, experienced sleeping in an open ward in a long room with five beds on one side facing a long counter of doctors and nurses. In the middle of the night, in my half slumber and weak waking moments, I realised that sleeping in a space like an open office was rather nicer than being cooped up in a private room. It had never occurred to me that sharing with other patients and seeing the dependable shadows of the moving and half-whispering nurses could engender such a soothing and warming feeling. I also felt a bond with my fellow patients.
I will howl and hunt down anyone who dares to question the NHS
I woke and experienced another extraordinary day of meticulous care. Each and every staff nurse, in their wonderful blue uniforms, could not have been more kind and helpful, including wiping me down with wit and humour, both of which, I can assure my readers, demanded a very high standard! There was one exceptional doctor from Hungary who became one of my greatest friends without my knowing it. His application of knowledge and experience to my case was one of those rare occurrences when you know a piece of fortune has been stitched into the hem of your life.
So, ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you now the fountain of all serendipities: if you were in the magical labyrinth of the Hillingdon NHS, you would, like I, never ever have a single doubt about the NHS as an institution of the greatest cultivation. I will howl and hunt down anyone who dares to question the NHS. Tonight, as I sleep at the Marsden, under another impermeable umbrella of the NHS, I pay my private tribute to the NHS, particularly to all my new best friends at the Hillingdon, and I also pay a public tribute to what they represent.
My mother always told me that the UK provided the best education in the world, to which I now add the best hospital care in the world. The fact that it was free at the point of service defies even Einsteinian space-time. So I am glad I have paid my taxes in this country — before with reluctance, but now with alacrity. I hereby demote Asclepius and genuflect to Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS.
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Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
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