My Heartfelt Defence of the Wonderful NHS, Exactly Six Years After My Major Illness


Andy Worthington in St. Thomas's Hospital, March 23, 2011 (Photo: Dot Young).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.


Exactly six years ago, my life changed drastically when I was hospitalised, for 12 days, as doctors with the NHS tried — and eventually succeeded — in working out how to save a number of my toes, which, over the preceding months, had gone black and were causing me truly extraordinary pain. It is also important because, as I prepared to admit myself to hospital, at noon on March 18, 2011, I smoked the last cigarette in 29 years of enthusiastic addiction, a move that counts as one of the single most important things I have ever done on my life. As a chain-smoker of roll-ups, I was, very genuinely, killing myself by the time of my illness, and I am thankful that I not only carried on living, but also recovered my lung capacity, and began singing again (I come from a long line of singers, stretching back as far as my family’s memory reaches).

As for my illness, at the start of the year, I had first noticed what appeared to be a painful bruise on the big toe of my right foot, although I had no recollection of hitting it on anything to cause such a bruise. I then made a visit to the US to campaign for the closure of Guantánamo (for the first time on the anniversary of the prison’s opening), where I was in pain but still able to function, and, at the end of the month, I visited Poland for a week, to show a Polish-subtitled version of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the film I co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash, where the pain grew much more severe.

On my return to the UK, my big toe was turning back, and was soon joined by my middle toe, and yet I was failed by both GPs and doctors at my local hospital, who didn’t understand the severity of what was happening to me. For the entire month before I was finally hospitalised, at my wife’s instance, when I was finally given morphine, the only effective painkiller for truly severe pain, I suffered the most horrible sleep deprivation, unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, as every time I managed to fall asleep the pain would wake me up just minutes later. Just once, I managed to get locum doctors to give me two painkillers stronger than over the counter medications, and on the first occasion I actually got one good night’s sleep, but by the time I took the second its strength was insufficient to combat the ever-growing pain.

Throughout this time, when I continued working (you can find my obsessive writing here), it was also not lost on me how ironic it was for someone who had spent five years researching and writing about prisoners of the “war on terror” being subjected to sleep deprivation, amongst other forms of torture, to end up suffering sleep deprivation because of what turned out to be a rare blood disease — Essential thrombocythaemia (ET), if that’s of interest.

This was not immediately apparent when I was first hospitalised, on March 18, 2011, although doctors had ascertained that what had turned my toes black was a blood clot. After a few days, however, my wife worked out that the hospital didn’t seem to be capable of addressing my needs, and insisted that I be moved to St. Thomas’s, opposite the Houses of Parliament, where I spent the next ten days, and where doctors successfully worked out how to save my toes, eventually pumping me full of what felt like cement, for five hours a day for five days. That last session was extraordinarily painful, despite the ever-present morphine, but the treatment, designed to open up my arteries to allow the flow of blood to resume unimpeded, was ultimately successful. I have since been treated by wonderful doctors at St. Thomas’s partner hospital, St. Guy’s, by London Bridge, and also have my blood monitored on a regular basis at Lewisham Hospital.

Throughout the period I was hospitalised, I also continued writing, as the staff allowed me to find a corner of an office with wi-fi reception, where I hammered away day and night, on the articles you can find in the list I linked to previously, numbered from 102 to 109. They include my reflections on my illness, Intimations of Mortality — And Why This Is the View From My Bedroom, and my report about the huge anti-austerity march that I watched from my hospital room, entitled, On the Anti-Cuts Protest in London, 500,000 Say No to the Coalition Government’s Arrogant, Ideological Butchery of the British State, the first great protest against the particularly true and inept Tory governments that we’ve been plagued by since May 2010.

It may be something of an exaggeration to say that I owe the NHS my life, rather than just my toes, but it doesn’t feel like it — and I can categorically say that both my wife and my son would not be alive without the swift Caesarian and acute post-natal care offered by the NHS at the time of his birth (in 1999, at King’s College Hospital, in Camberwell, in a department that, unfortunately, was later given the PFI treatment).

As with all serious treatment performed by the NHS, I — and my wife in 1999 — benefited from a system paid for by general taxation, rather than being burdened for years, decades, or for life with repaying the costs of a private medical system, or being mired in the profiteering that seems to be the hallmark of insurance-based systems (when they’re not, one way or another, signing death warrants for those who can’t pay).

The amount spent on health and social care as a percentage of GDP in 11 western countries, in a graph from 2013.Essentially, with the exception of the old and the poor, the NHS is funded by taxpayers, and works as the first and purest insurance systems always did, with everyone chipping in to ensure that, whoever gets ill, everyone is covered. It is a huge, huge relief to know that, when you’re extremely ill, no one will ask you for money either on arrival or departure from a hospital, and no one will be hunting you down afterwards, and there is, quite simply, no excuse for not maintaining this system and funding it adequately.

Since my illness, however, the Tories, with the unacceptable connivance of senior NHS managers, have been strangling the NHS, insisting on cuts that threaten the NHS’s very survival, secure in the knowledge that their 2011 reforms have already paved the way for ever-increasing privatisation. I have no doubt whatsoever that their ultimate aim, if they can get away with it, is to replace the NHS with a bloated insurance-based system like the US, in which senior medical professionals and the insurance companies make insane amounts of money, but the financial burden on individuals is much higher, and those who are not well-off live in constant fear of getting ill, and the costs that entails, particularly those who simply cannot afford insurance.

The answer is to get rid of this vile government, audit the NHS properly and ask the British people to pay more in taxes to fund it. That is clearly required, as this LSE report from January 2016 demonstrated (and see the graph above), revealing that, “For most of the period between 1980 and 2013, the UK spent a lower proportion of its GDP on health care than any other country.”

The NHS ranked against other western healthcare services, from an analysis by the US-based Commonwealth Fund in 2015, which ranked the NHS as the best.This is not to say that the NHS was failing, however. Despite shock stories about failing hospitals and the cost of health tourism, and despite unprincipled attacks on doctors by the wretched health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, detailed comparison and analysis of all the west’s health systems, conducted in 2014 by the Commonwealth Fund, a US-based foundation, found that, as the Independent described it, British healthcare was “rated top out of 11 western countries, with [the] US coming last” (and also see the graph to the left), although the current crisis, inflicted by the government, must surely mean that position is at risk.

So today, as I celebrate being alive — and my 2,192 days without smoking! — I leave you with just one message: please, please, please do all you can to support the NHS! If the Tories destroy it, you will miss it more than you could ever know, unless, like me and my family, you have ever experienced its care first-hand at times of great need.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Exactly six years ago, I was hospitalised because of a blood clot that had turned two of my toes black. The pain was excruciating, and for about a month before I suffered from severe sleep deprivation. However, NHS doctors at St. Thomas’s cured me, and I lived to tell the tale and to praise the NHS forever – the greatest achievement of the British people, which MUST be saved from its would-be butchers in the Tory government, who want to see it fail so it can be privatised, and are currently starving it of funding. These are my memories of that time, including how I gave up smoking after 29 years (which remains one of the best things I’ve ever done), and some thoughts about the NHS and statistics demonstrating how it is the best health service in the western world – a position the Tories are furiously trying to undo. Please help stop them and save the NHS!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    My family and me have never had anything but the best possible care. They make the system work in appalling conditions. Where would we be without it?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    We would be somewhere like America, I think, Anna, where you really don’t want to get ill. My analogy for health insurance is always with cars. Imagine you have an accident, your car is a write-off, but you’re OK. However, when it comes to getting money out of the insurance company, their job is to try NOT to pay out, and they end up cheating you, so you get nothing. You don’t care really, though, because it’s just a car, it’s not you, it’s not your life. Now imagine those insurance people making the same decisions about your life and death rather than just a vehicle. From my experience, the people in the NHS work for a health SERVICE, not a health BUSINESS. It’s a crucial distinction.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    I agree. Like so many of our services that are being cut. Every Police station near me has been demolished and will be rebuilt into expensive flats. They were always so busy. I know because I worked there. Why would the government care because they are protected. It’s a disgrace Andy

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, everything is being converted into flats, Anna, or knocked down so that new flats can be built. Since 2010 the Tories have started demolishing the very structure of civil society – including previously off-limits aspects, like the courts, the criminal justice system, and the police, as you note. I think, angry but also confused by this, people have been trying to reach out to what they see as solutions, but are coming up with Brexit in the UK, and Trump in the US, which only mean even more of the same. Neoliberalism has demonstrated that everything is disposable in search of profit – jobs, above all – but the Brexiteers and Trump are no different. In fact, all we can expect from them is even greater destruction of public services and even greater power for the banks and corporations. We really, really, really need an awakening!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    If you like what I’m doing, by the way, please be aware that the only support I have for any of this is through the generous donations of my readers. Details about my latest fundraiser are here:

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    Totally agree with you. When will it end? Kings Cross has lovely council flats which the council run down so they can condemn them and build new expensive unaffordable flats. I just hope this will all end soon. No one can live in London now as you know. They move people from London to the North. Park Crescent. Do you know it? All gone. I thought they were listed buildings. Demolished.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s so heartbreaking, Anna, that, across the capital, housing estates that should be renovated are being sold to developers who knock them down and then largely socially cleanse the area of existing tenants, building new, hideously overpriced, identikit housing developments that, for the most part, look like, in 20 years or less, they’ll be tomorrow’s slums. The whole thing is a disgrace on a scale that, just a generation ago, would have been unimaginable in its greed and its contempt for ordinary working people.
    As for Park Crescent, the excuse is that it was largely destroyed in the war, and the 1960s rebuild was a poor echo of Nash’s original, but it still seems extraordinary. As always, though, when it comes to central London, the amount of money to be made is almost unimaginable, and there seems to be nothing that can be done to stop it.
    I hate citing the wretched right-wing Mail, but they did the most comprehensive report on Park Crescent:

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    How do they get away with it?
    Park Crescent was amazing. How can they say that?

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Money, money, money, Anna. This is what was presaged by Peter Mandelson explaining that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” Suddenly there was no more oppositional politics, just two main parties agreeing that money was the only arbiter of value in the whole of society, and that everything else was irrelevant. It’s been the case for 20 years now, and when we look back even further, including Thatcher’s 11-year reign, when greed was first put at the top of the agenda, the only break in the last 38 years has been during the John Major years, when the economy was pretty wrecked, and dissent was everywhere.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    So sad. And we will never go back to the way it was.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think what’s gone is gone, sadly, Anna, but what we have now can’t last. I just fear that when it collapses the chances of restoring decency and civil society will be slim. Worrying times. However, we must never stop trying to remind people who the real enemies are – in the corridors of power, not anywhere else.

  13. Tom says...

    Hi Andy. Here Congresspeople get special access to a health exchange that gives them the best health care available. Do MP’s have the same system? Or, is everyone covered (but you decide whether you want NHS or private)?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Do you know, I don’t know the answer to that question, Tom. The NHS has generally been so beloved that people didn’t opt out of it for private systems, although it has been encouraged by the privateers, from Thatcher onwards. I’m sure many left-leaning MPs simply choose the NHS, like the rest of us, but I imagine many or most Tories using insurance programs that involve private treatment.

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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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