The London Years: The NHS hunger games (14 of 20)

The surgeon looked at me, astonishment all over her face. You’ve been like this for weeks? Yes, I replied. And the GP refused to give your a referral? Yes, I replied. I saw her trying to suppress her anger. I could almost see her going red progressively and trying to keep it all professional. Right, she said, emergency surgery tomorrow morning. Finally, someone was taking me seriously.

Don’t know what’s going on? I’m leaving London soon so this is one of my 20 London stories – a celebration of 20 years of my life here.

OK, we should start from some explanations. Most Greeks who move to the UK find the NHS maddening but this is usually for all the wrong reasons. In the main Greeks are accustomed to going to specialists immediately. The family doctor idea is relatively new. Additionally, private health is comparatively cheap – let’s say 50 euro to be seen by a gynaecologist and get an ultrasound vs. a minimum of 150 pounds in the UK. This is comparing apples with oranges. Most Greeks would find any comparison between the NHS system and the equivalent Greek system laughable. The NHS would win hands down.

The General Practitioner / GP system is, on the face of it, incredibly wise. Since the average patient has no idea what’s wrong with them it’s probably better to have GPs do community based medicine and send the cases that warrant a specialist to the appropriate colleague. The appropriate specialist shall see them in due time and things take their course. Chronic underfunding, expansion of GPs catchment areas, disappearance of social services and a general air of policy havoc makes things more difficult in practice.

Take talking to a GP as an example – also known to residents in Britain as the Hunger Games. To book an actual appointment, most GP surgeries have the following system. They open the lines at 8:00 every morning. You need to keep calling (the line will keep dropping), and then keep waiting (your call is important to us, you are number… 43 in the queue) until finally an overworked, exasperated and probably bullied receptionist (you understand what that does to their manner) tells you if there are appointment left or not. If there aren’t you need to try again the next day. Exceptions exist – for example for young babies and vulnerable patients. But as a usually healthy adult it often feels like the system’s principle is that whatever you have will probably go away on its own.

And to be honest, speaking from experience, it usually does. Until, it doesn’t. That’s when you enter a new set of games, this time like a Marathon. To win in this game you have to persistently go through the Hunger Games every week or two weeks and complain about the same thing. The GP will give you progressively more aggressive treatments (take this for five days, if it doesn’t get better come see us again) until they are – by some miracle – forced to give you a referral to a specialist.

I once had a persistent and excruciatingly painful problem which successive GPs treated with what felt like a mix of hopes and prayers. The last GP I saw actually REFUSED to examine the actual area and when I insisted told me she felt bullied. I had learned not to piss off GPs and went home crying. I ended up in A&E the next day. I don’t think any of the nurses, doctor and surgeon in that A&E could believe how I had lived with the pain for so long.

It was so incredibly dramatic that I could not bring myself to complain. I soon moved away from that area and the relief I felt at never having to go that monumental bullying asshole of a GP was palpable. Because real bullies always accuse you of bullying them in my experience. I wish I was stronger but actually I wish that the system was designed to protect people better. This is the NHS reality.

After the surgeon examined me she sent me home with strict instructions and booked me in for emergency day surgery the next morning. I arrived and they walked me through the procedure and the risks, they answered my question and took me to theatre. It was clean, new, smelled of disinfectant. The kindly anaesthesiologist helped me drift off without any panic and when I woke up a nurse was holding my hand and explaining to me that everything went well. I then waited in a ward for the surgeon to come and talk to me about what had happened and how I could care for myself over the next few days. I left feeling relieved, without anymore pain, understood, heard and taken care of. My gynaecologist in Greece told me that even himself or his amazing consultant could not have shown such attention to detail as that surgeon did. And this, also, is the NHS reality.

I gave birth in a normal NHS hospital. My mother came from Greece to be in the room with me – which didn’t happen because I got a C-section in the end and only Antonis was allowed to be there to distract me and hold the kid. After a failed induction, the midwives and the obgyn on call were strongly advising me to go on the drip and I was refusing. The NHS loves a natural birth – which I hear is medically sound. I was just very attached to my ability to hold my urine and faeces in as much as possible rather than risk a tear and incontinence. I was sitting there on the bed, 3 of them over me looking concerned and insisting and I stood my ground. I felt that they were not being sympathetic, I felt like they were pressuring me.

Two days later, with the kid refusing to eat and the midwives forced to come and squeeze some pathetic drops of milk from my boobs, a miracle worker opened the curtains. She wasn’t even a lactation consultant, she was a midwife. She looked at me up and down and said, you will feed this baby for six months, or a year or however long you want, let’s do this together. And she taught me and the boy and I saw him drinking milk straight from my boobs instead from a tiny cup like a kitten and as I write this I want to cry the tears of gratitude I cried that day all over again.

This is, also, NHS reality.

I won’t lie. When I got a job with an employer that offered private insurance I breathed a sigh of relief. I now go straight to a private GP who sees me in a couple of hours and I’ve seen more specialists in the five years than I’ve seen in the fifteen previous years. The peace of mind is incomparable as well as the tremendous guilt. The more the NHS is privatised and we don’t speak up, and the more of us go private the more we are endangering the wonder of public health. But that’s easy to say in theory and hard to do anything about when you want to get peace of mind today, not in six months.

The ward I gave birth in was full. There were so many people coming in and out. There were four of us in each room that was looking a bit tired. I thought it needed a lick of paint, the windows were draughty and the visitor’s chair was designed so that nobody could actually rest on it.

My mother on the other hand was AMAZED. She has cared for sick parents and relatives in Greek public hospitals and she marvelled at things like clean sheets, nurses at your beck and call and antibacterial wipes being available.

When I was crying because the kid wouldn’t breastfeed and I felt like a monumental failure – post pregnancy hormones wreaking havoc as they do with my mental state – my mother went to the midwives and explained, god knows how, with her limited english, that I needed support. One of them came, caring and patient, while chaos reigned and women and babies also had needs and sat down next to me to help me calm down and keep trying. She notified the aforementioned wizard. She hugged me when I laughed while crying as the kid was finally latched on and guzzled down the milk.

And that – honestly – is also the NHS.


My #20LondonStories

  1. Grexit/ Brexit 
  2. The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach
  3. The night bus 
  4. Words save our lives… sometimes 
  5. The rest is noise 
  6. How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box 
  7. Always have a sister 
  8. Greek London 
  9. This green and pleasant land 
  10. The bridge of aspiration 
  11. The knight in well travelled armor 
  12. Carpets in the toilet and other adventures in housing
  13. Moments in Art 
  14. The NHS hunger games 
  15. In nocte consilium
  16. The friends we found, the friends we lost
  17. Blogging tips for beginners 
  18. Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child
  19. γνῶθι σεαυτόν
  20. How to leave London

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