Intimations of Mortality Revisited; or Why I Will Always Fight to Save the NHS


Two years ago — at noon on March 18, 2011 — I gave up smoking after chain-smoking for 29 years. It was one of the best things I ever did in my life, along with giving up drinking (nearly five years ago), and meeting my wife and having a child.

When I gave up smoking, I did so because I was admitted to hospital after two and a half months of severe pain in my right foot, which, in the last fortnight before my hospital admission, had become so excruciatingly painful that I literally couldn’t sleep. I wrote about it at the time, in an article entitled, “Intimations of Mortality” — hence the reference in the title above, as I revisit this crucial period of my life.

I had developed a blood disorder, which had manifested itself as a blood clot, cutting off the blood supply to my right foot — first to my big toe, and then to my middle toe. It took two months for me to be admitted to hospital, but, when that happened, doctors and consultants in St. Thomas’s Hospital saved my toes, and I was discharged after spending about a week and half being pumped full of drugs and gazing across the River Thames at the Houses of Parliament (as the photo above shows). Within three months, my toes had healed, and I contributed to keeping myself alive by giving up smoking, and, I think, by somehow “managing” the indignation I feel about the injustices of the world, an indignation that had led to me discovering, in my late 30s, that my calling was to be an independent journalist and activist — on civil liberties, human rights abuses, and social justice.

I’d like to say I’m “better,” but that wouldn’t be true. After a year eating biscuits I decided being fit was a good idea and began cycling and taking photographs of London on an almost daily basis. This has been a revelation to me, primarily as it has convinced me that we are meant to be outdoors — whatever the weather — and are not meant to be cooped up in buildings.

However, although I have been feeling fitter than I did since the natural high of youth wore off, sometime in my 30s, I am not “well.” I have a chronic blood disease, I am on blood thinners, and I will soon have to embark on further medication, which, it seems, will not be fun.

I’m sharing this with you, my friends, not just because March 18 is such a significant day for me, but also because I hope it provides a small grain of assistance to anyone trying to overcome addictions.

Primarily, however, I’m sharing it because I wish, very publicly, to defend the NHS as the single most important institution in the UK, and one that I will fight to save. I should add that my own experience is not the only reason that I will always fight for the NHS. In 1999, my son was born prematurely, and both he and his mother owe their lives to the NHS, and to doctors and surgeons and consultants and specialists and nurses in King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, so in a very real sense we are all here today because of the doctors and nurses of the NHS.

I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of an NHS that doesn’t exist. No one knew at first what was wrong with me, and GPs and specialists failed to work it out or to deal with it adequately until I ended up in St. Thomas’s. This was not their fault, as such. Illnesses and diseases rarely come with tags attached explaining what they are, and mistakes can be made that are not deliberate or the result of incompetence.

However, since I ended up in St. Thomas’s two years ago, the care I have received, the monitoring of my condition on a regular basis, and the fruits of the ongoing research into blood diseases, have all provided an excellent demonstration of the NHS as a world-class provider of healthcare.

Moreover, the NHS does all this as a taxpayer-funded insurance system for everyone, in which those trying to save lives do so, for the most part, because it is a service — one that, obviously, needs funding to make it work, but not a business.

Every time I visit the blood clinic at Lewisham Hospital to have my blood levels tested, or the haematology departments in St. Thomas’s and Guy’s, where my case is regularly reviewed by specialists, I am reminded of how the NHS provides this service, and I am enormously relieved that, because we all pay for it through our taxes, it is free at the point of entry and exit.

Here in the UK, the Tories want to destroy the NHS, as they want to destroy the taxpayer-funded state provision of almost all services (one exception being their own salaries and expenses). It is important that these plans are resisted. In the US, where almost twice as much of the country’s GDP is spent on health as in the UK, the world of private healthcare insurance is riddled with fraud, and tens of millions of the poorest and the weakest members of society — those unable to afford insurance — have their lives ruined by crippling debt if they get ill. As a result, the “care” that drives a universal system is constantly at odds with — and more often than not crushed by — the cold reality of healthcare as a business.

Here, the system works as insurance was designed to work — everyone puts in, except those exempt from taxes, and everyone benefits if they get ill. Whether you are unemployed or the leader of a political party, if you have a disabled child, for example, the NHS will be there for you.

The NHS currently faces the gravest threat in its entire 65-year existence — from the Tories, who are currently attempting to sneak through secondary legislation associated with their wretched Health and Social Care Act (passed last year) which will make it mandatory for the Clinical Commissioning Groups of GPs (who take over 80 percent of the NHS’s budget on April 1) to open up almost all NHS services to competition — in other words, to the encroachments of private companies, whose concern is with profits rather than health.

Although over 350,000 people signed a 38 Degrees petition resisting these changes, which prompted Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb to state that the key regulations on competition in the NHS would be rewritten, the Tories cannot be trusted, and there will be is a lobby of Parliament on Wednesday March 26, beginning at 12 noon, to protest about the regulations. Please attend if you can, and also see the Facebook page here.

This is not the only threat to the NHS. The health service’s own medical directors are also engaged in a mission to destroy services, through cuts that will see the disappearance of dozens of hospitals, on the deluded basis that they are focusing on achieving the highest standards of clinical care at fewer sites.

These proposals are affecting Lewisham Hospital, and many other hospitals across London, and I am involved in the campaigns to save these hospitals from destruction, primarily on the basis that, although the senior NHS officials are correct to focus on making the best possible services available, and are to be congratulated on establishing a system whereby certain emergencies — heart attacks and strokes, for example — are best dealt with at specialist centres covering a number of hospitals, their reorganisation and rationalisation is going too far, resulting in the closure of A&E Departments serving hundreds of thousands of people and the knock-on effect on other widely-used services, including maternity and children’s care.

At Lewisham Hospital (which is being sacrificed illegally under the cover of legislation designed to deal with the financial problems of a neighbouring NHS trust), this will mean that there will be just one A&E for the 750,000 people in three boroughs (Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley), at a hospital located on a remote heath in Woolwich), as well as the resultant knock-on effect on other frontline services. In Lewisham, for example, a borough with a population of 270,000 (the size of Brighton, Newcastle or Hull), 90 percent of mothers (currently around 4,000 a year) will no longer be able to give birth in the borough, as only those who are regarded as a low risk (no first-time mothers, and no older mothers) can be provided maternity services without emergency back-up.

Not only is there no spare capacity in neighbouring hospitals for the tens of thousands of emergencies (out of the more than 100,000 adults and children who visit Lewisham’s A&E every year) — and the thousands of mothers — who will be turned away on an annual basis, but these plans also involve a fundamental dishonesty. If it can be established that more money is needed for the NHS, the people of Britain will, I am sure, pay more, but for that that conversation to take place, we need politicians of the calibre of Nye Bevan, the health secretary at the time of the founding of the NHS, who gave those of us defending the NHS our great rallying cry: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.”

Note: For further information, please visit the website of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and see my archive of articles. Please also note that there will be a London-wide “Defend London’s NHS” demonstration in central London on Saturday May 18, beginning at 12 noon in Jubilee Gardens in Waterloo (by the London Eye), followed by a march to the Department of Health and Parliament. See here for the flier on the Keep Our NHS Public website.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign”, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

36 Responses

  1. damo says...

    the best thing i ever did was give up smokeing,drinking,drugs,lol..and the nhs helped me with it all and thats also why ill fight to save the nhs they helped me beat addiction and for the last 3 years since 1988 ive had 0 addictions thank god for the nhs that why we need to fight for it..dxxxx

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Damo. Good to hear from you, as always.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Aleksandra Łojek wrote:

    I am deeply humbled by your words and the way you defend the right things. I totally agree with every statement of yours in this piece (and not only). My experience with NHS is ongoingly fantastic and I struggle to understand the motives of undermining it (however I am for revealing all faults when they happen). Wish you strength and continuous inspiration!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Aleksandra, for the very encouraging words. I worry that those with malevolent intentions – the privatisers, who, like true fanatics, refuse to see any other point of view – are having their true intentions disguised by those who have been taken in by the new economic orthodoxy – that huge cuts are necessary, and that everything “public” is bloated and unaffordable. This group includes the NHS’s own medical directors, and, it seems to me, the majority of those in editorial and senior journalist positions in the mainstream media (and on the NHS, right now, the Guardian seems to be particularly useless, for the most part). The cuts to the NHS will only undermine services, and the bigger problem regarding cuts in general, which isn’t mentioned nearly enough, is that austerity doesn’t work, and also that we need to be securing more money from tax-avoiding and tax-evading corporations, banks and individuals.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Zilma Nunes wrote:

    great institution , you are grateful .I hope you have no more troubles and you try to help save that hospital…Good action, good luck.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zilma. Much appreciated.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Lori Ninety-nine Percent Wallace wrote:

    Just keep on saying it, Andy. I hate to see the austerity hounds keep on baying, but apparently their collective minds are made up and they are willing to continue to undermine the working class in order to shore up the wealthy and the corporate class.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lori. Very well put.

  9. George Berger says...

    I’m sharing this, Andy. A moving personal report and an account of what is happening. I can only add that the ‘centralisation’ you describe is taking place in every EU country I know.

  10. Peace Activist says...

    I also gave up smoking, partly due to the NHS. I don’t drink very often and not a lot when I do; so I suppose I’ve won that one too. I tend to think the NHS will just quietly fade away; there are too many powerful people who want the NHS to be their own, for it to survive. I think maybe the NHS will attract a steadily growing amount of scandal. Private companies will maybe come to the rescue, like the cavalry, gathering all the glory. There has been much said about the NHS, and other major public sector departments; should such departments be privatized or nationalized. Whilst this may be of significant intrinsic importance; I think the real question is how efficient and how ethical would such private companies be? What makes this situation extremely dangerous is the fact that most ordinary only know or care about their immediate surroundings; that is the natural way of things. But we live in a nation of many unanswered questions; particularly concerning some of the most profitable companies. We need accountability; the “war on terror” has clearly displayed the fact that laws can be broken with total impunity and large profits grained. Some of the criminality, nepotism and blind faith in ‘too big to fail’ or be less than impeccable, will surely rub off and spread most everywhere.

  11. Carol Brown says...

    I think I’ve met you briefly – you took a photo of my friend and me at Saturday’s demo if I’m right. I’d like to email you my story sometime. Basically Lewisham A&E, emergency surgery and ICU saved my life a year ago. But mainly I would like to say ‘well done’ to all 3 of you and to wish you luck with the medical challenges you face. I’ll be at Parliament next week. Please say hi if you get the chance – my visual memory’s still got a way to go! Carol.

  12. Peace Activist says...

    I am sorry to post again but I didn’t convey how pleased I am to read your above post. I am overjoyed that you have recovered and are basically OK. Thank you also for all your good work. (Facebook / Malcolm Bush).

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. I appreciate your support, as you know, I’m sure. The second anniversary of my “episode” was one that I felt was appropriate for a fuller explanation of how and why I feel — no, why I know — the NHS is so important. Every few weeks, on average, I have to go to Lewisham Hospital to have my blood tested – all of us on blood thinners have to have our blood regularly checked to make sure that the thinners are not making it too thin or are failing to keep it thin enough. The room is always packed out, and the majority of the people there are elderly, and, in most cases, not wealthy. So every time I get a snapshot of what the NHS is and does, and I recall what I have heard about how things were before the NHS was established, and I worry that the greed of private companies will break the NHS and result in deteriorating standards, longer waiting times, more preventable deaths, and more people excluded from more and more treatments because taxpayers’ money is being siphoned off to pay shareholders. We really do need a people’s revolution – of those who want decent standards of care for everybody, and a functioning state in public hands, against the elites who are currently running the show, and have been since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Peace Activist. The thing is, we need an NHS that is free at the point of entry and exit for those suffering emergencies, and as long as we have that, the core of the NHS will be intact. The problem is that what all the main parties want, to be honest, is much more cherry picking and profiteering for their corporate chums, driving up costs, and leading to the reduction of universal services to pay for those profits. I think we have time to save the NHS, but we need more people to understand what is at stake and why. It remains the most powerful way of defeating the privatising mindset, however.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Carol,
    Did you make the placard that read “Lewisham Hospital saved me,” which, first of all, your friend was holding up, and I then photographed you holding it up with her next to you laughing? This photo?
    Do correct me if not.perhaps you can find your photo on my Flickr site.
    Anyway, I’d love to hear your story, Carol, and please help me identify you so I can say hello next Wednesday!

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Malcolm. I remember the card you sent me wishing me well when I came home from hospital just under two years ago! I feel very well, for the most part, now that I have discovered that we are meant to be fit and active, although I have recently been diagnosed with a second chronic blood disease, for which I will have to embark on possibly quite heavy-duty medication, probably for life, along with the blood thinners, which isn’t exactly where I’d hoped to be right now. The two things – my health on the one hand, and my illness on the other – don’t seem to fit together, but denial will get me nowhere and I’m trying to understand that life isn’t necessarily fair …

  17. Thomas says...

    My Mum is right now on a ventelator in an NHS hospital fighting for her life after she got a cold. If the NHS gets vivisected we would end up having to pay huge amounts for her care as no insurerer would touch her with a lance.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Thomas, for the comments. I am glad to hear that your mum is being looked after by the NHS.
    Thanks also for reminding me of an easily overlooked problem with a system based on private healthcare insurance – the refusal of insurance companies to insure those who are ill, thereby forcing them into paying whatever is decided as the profitable cost of treatment.

  19. Tom says...

    Not to interfere in personal stuff, Andy. But as far as health goes, one thing that helps me is to take a holistic approach to it. Part of that is to keep your p/h balance in line as best you can. Go easy on the acidic stuff (sweets, beer, wine, ground meat) and have more alkaline stuff (fruits, vegetables and water). If mine’s in line, I feel like I can focus better and have a better flow of energy overall.

    As for the NHS, it reminds me of an old Tony Benn interview where he talked about standing up for your rights. Why is the right to have a healthy and decent standard of life an “entitlement” only for the wealthy? One thing that the rich and powerful never mention: if the worst happened and they lost practically everything, they’d be fighting for that right as well. Their spin doctors will never let them publically admit that. But it’s true.

    If you’d like some other holistic leads, use my email and I’ll send some.

  20. Tom says...

    How to balance your activism and your health? One thing that helps me is to realize that odds are singlehandedly, I can’t save the world. That doesn’t mean don’t be aware, have facts and care. Instead, break an issue down into smaller, more manageable sections.

    If your health overall (physical and mental are all one thing, IMO) isn’t in good shape, how can you be effective in other areas? Besides, even if you don’t solve the problem, you can at least have some inner peace knowing that you’re doing something. And who doesn’t need more of that these days.

  21. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I was very pleased to read that your campaign to quit smoking has been successful! I have wanted to ask you how your campaign was going, many times, and did not mainly because I know it is a hard task, and it can be depressing to acknowledge failure for those who fall by the wayside.

    My own parents were heavy smokers, who made serious attempts to quit. Both of them died of diseases where their smoking was a likely contributing factor. I am sure your son will thank you for quitting, when he is old enough to understand how hard that was for you, and how your commitment to do so meant you were around for extra years to be with him.


  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I like that, Tom: “Why is the right to have a healthy and decent standard of life an ‘entitlement’ only for the wealthy?” What we’re constantly hearing is abut the sense of entitlement of the poor, when it is the rich who believe they are entitled not to pay their share of taxes, that they are entitled to exploit others both at home and abroad to enrich themselves to the level that they – yes – believe they’re entitled to.
    As for my health, Tom, I get a lot of exercise cycling, and am an evangelist for being outdoors for many hours every day, whatever the weather. I have a sweet tooth still, I freely admit, but my problems stem from a disease, not my lifestyle.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Yes, I found it very easy to give up when the time came, funnily enough. I’m very good when I put my mind to things! Thank you – very sincerely – for your concern.

  24. damo says...

    i just wanted to share with you the stupidest piece of journalisum i ever read ,lol it was in weds evening standard whitch seems to fetishise the wealthy more and more each week but it was about the houseing crisis and get this they had a debate ,lol,lol,lol..were get this there was a organization called the rentysomethings,lol i kid you not,lol its spokewoman was imogen fuckwit or something,lol now shes a director of some company and at 26 she earns £45.000 per years and she was whineing about not being able to get on the….PROPERTY LADDER…lol whingeing about haveing to rent you know pay £2500 a mounth for a luxury flat when she realy wants a house of her own and to be on the property ladder,lol[im not makeing this up andy]her and her …chums..are furious that theres no houses to buy under £500.000 AS THERE YOUNG PROFETIONALS THEY SAY THERE entitled to …..OWN A PROPERTY OF THERE OWN…lol,lol there are thousands of people going to be made homeless and this middle class emotional and social..simpleton is whineing that it cant get on the property ladder ,lol thease middle class brats are like veruca salt from willy wonka i wont a pwoperty entittled..andy you couldnt make it up,lol,lol the and its polititions are the laughing stock of the world,lol,lol

  25. damo says...

    this country has gone mad,lol,lol

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Damo, and Veruca Salt is the perfect analogy for the spoilt aspirational brigade. One of the big problems is that everyone feels a sense of entitlement, but, however rich they are, they think it’s not enough. I blame it on a failure to believe in the future. Instead of leaders, we have conmen and crooks out to get whatever they can for themselves and their chums. It’s not even a way to run a company, let alone an entire country.

  27. damo says...

    I WANT AN UMPA LUMPA DADDY,lol they just seem so emotionaly and socialy stupid at least thats wot id like to think but the truth is that they are greedy coldhearted cruel spoiled grasping little shits as were the parents who realy dont care about the plight of others ..its never enough they will never be satified its how there programed from birth and andy as we all know thease creatures ,thease things pose the greatest threat to this planet to humans to everything,lol,lol

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Damo, you’re right, sadly – they are indeed greedy, cold-hearted, cruel, spoiled and grasping. That’s the nadir to which our politic life has sunk. Greedy, vicious toffs – or their aspirational middle class counter-parts – pimping anything or anyone that can be sold, to corporations or the wealthiest individuals, and making sure that anyone driven by principles and a sense of social justice is excluded from mainstream political life.

  29. Damo says...

    Though I think things just might be changeing Andy I witnessed an incident in Morrisons of all places yesterday the Morrisons in acton which is still very poor there was a very wealthy couple of yuppies at the checkout fucking around and holding everyone up fussing over wine …Andy people started heckling them calling the funking yuppies and the like then Andy they started throwing things ,lol the guy was hit in the face buy a packet of tea cakes reduced i may add,lol these arsewipes were clearly horrified so it shows that people are turning starting to fight back,lol

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m surprised by how few stories like this I hear about, Damo, considering the one-sided propaganda against the poorest and most vulnerable members of society by those who are well off, or, at the very least, financially comfortable. I don’t advocate a reverse form of generalisation that would typecast all rich people as arrogant parasites, but it’s understandable if a class divide reawakens, and although the absurd intention of the government and the establishment is to cleanse London of anyone who can’t afford a mortgage or pay “market” rents, it’s clear to anyone paying attention that they are still outnumbered.

  31. Carol Brown says...

    I meant to reply before.- apologies if I already have. My memory is still getting there! That is me in the picture with my friend Donna. Hope to see you tomorrow. Good luck anyway, whether we meet up or not.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Carol. Very nice to have it confirmed that you are who I thought you were! I am sure we’ll meet at the demo outside Parliament – but not if you go tomorrow! It’s on Wednesday! See you there.

  33. Carol Brown says...

    Andy – I think it’s tomorrow. Unless I am very mistaken – which is always possible!

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    No, you are absolutely right, Carol. It is indeed tomorrow, Tuesday March 26. See you there!

  35. damo says...

    andy people are being pushed to the corner man,you know its been 5 years of economic hardship people are loseing it and thease to areshole were being arrogant fuckwits full baskets full of luxury food holding every one up and thowing shade,lol it was very funny to watch people were laughing at them as they insulted them..there are some very cool wonderfull giveing rich people who are generouse and classy with grace and manners they tend to have real class and tend to be self made [and that excludes the repelant alan sugar] you see them and thing good on you ,well done youve started with nothing and worked and worked ,they tend to be a good role models for people ..its to quote thatcher of all people the wets who have been given every thing esp in this just look at the tories ,tony blair ect,ect

  36. Andy Worthington says...

    Everywhere I go in London, Damo, I realise that the rich are next door to the poor, and that will be the case however much the Tories dream of expelling every poor person from London, because they forget how many people clean for them and work for them and look after them, and how many of those do it for less than a living wage. People who aren’t being crippled financially by this government need to wake up and notice what’s happening, or they won’t know what’s going on if the tide turns, and some of those suffering refuse to conclude that being ignorant and self-obsessed is a good enough excuse for indifference.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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