A year ago I developed an unsightly lump on my left eyelid. At first, I thought it was a stye but when, after a month, it was still in place I consulted my doctor. He told me it was a chalazion cyst caused by a blocked tear gland, could last as long as six months but required no treatment. It lasted seven. Two months later it re-emerged in the same place, larger than ever and this time with a slight but discomforting addition of pain and blurred vision.
Further back in time, when I was living in Mexico, I was a regular dinner guest at my girlfriend’s family home. Other guests would often be present, one of whom, an elderly uncle, had a habit of launching one of a seemingly infinite store of anecdotes with the phrase “Cuando yo mataba a la gente…” which roughly translates as “In the days when I used to kill people…” It took me a few dinners to inquire - nervously and in the uncle’s absence - whether I had correctly understood the meaning of such an alarming prolegomenon. When the initial burst of laughter had given way to appropriate sobriety, I received an explanation. Uncle Luis had been a doctor but had ceased to practice while still a young man because his beloved wife had fallen seriously ill and he had been unable to save her. He had thereby concluded that doctors do more harm than good and people should stay away from them - a view that Moliere the great satirist of the medical profession might well have approved.
It is perhaps under these twin influences - the one literary the other experiential - that I have tried to steer clear of serious engagement with doctors, and though my efforts have not always been successful, I am only too happy to find reasons for ignoring their counsel or simply not seeking it. Armed thus with my doctor’s original advice, namely to wait it out, I opted this time not even to bother him with a visit. I would simply do nothing.
So matters would have remained had an old friend who had suffered a similar problem not advised me to pay a visit to London’s Moorfield Eye Hospital.
“They cured me in no time, “ she said, adding by way of reassurance for my pocket that Moorfield is NHS and I wouldn’t have to pay. At first I demurred on the grounds that I would have to get a referral from my doctor and then wait for months for an appointment.
“No, you just walk in.”
“You might have to wait, but they’ll see you for sure.”
My partner plus a couple of other friends were listening to this conversation and now, with one voice, they urged me to seek treatment. What after all had I got to lose?
My reluctant answer: nothing very much.
So I followed the advice and, one Friday morning last September, walked into Moorfield Eye Hospital unannounced. To my surprise, the receptionist treated my sudden appearance as perfectly normal and directed me to the out-patient’s department where, after a ten-minute delay, my details and the purpose of my visit were noted and I was directed to an adjacent waiting area where some twenty others were already seated. I had brought the Penguin edition of Boethius to console me during what I was sure would be a near eternity of enforced idleness, but had barely had time to read through the opening verses of Book 1 before being interrupted by a nurse who bore me away for a preliminary assessment of my state of health. Then came a second period of waiting in a different area, before I was once again led away, this time, for an eye test. Third and fourth episodes of waiting and examination followed - each in a different location of the out-patients’ department, whose layout is sufficiently bewildering to dispel any confidence the uninitiated might have about their navigational skills. This first visit lasted for about four hours, long enough for my sense of direction to abandon me entirely so that, despite a respectable amount of signage, I had to ask for directions to the exit. Nevertheless, when I finally made my way out, I carried with me, in addition to the news that I would need minor surgery, a brace of appointments, the first for a preliminary medical check-up, and the second for the main event.
The last of these took place a few hours ago and I am now seated before the computer, minus an unpleasant cyst and with a very large patch over one eye, held in place by numerous lengths of white tape which I am instructed not to remove until the morrow. En route home, I felt like the very incarnation of Dickens infamous headmaster of Dotheboys Hall because, in addition to having only one (visible) eye, the blank side of my face was much wrinkled and patched up, which gave me a very sinister appearance, especially when I smiled.
None of that matters, of course.
What does matter is that the manner in which all the staff of Moorfield Eye Hospital dealt with me could not, in my view, be bettered. The organization works not so much like a well-oiled machine, for machines are impersonal and can offer no tenderness or humour, still less awareness of pain, but it was more the epitome of what one imagines a hospital should be: a place where skill, compassion and efficiency combine in the service of the people. This is the same, magnificent NHS that is odiously hounded by the right-wing gutter-press and repeatedly traduced by Tories bent on breaking it up and delivering the pieces to private profiteers. Both have seized with delight on the problems at Stafford Hospital, thereby fostering the patently false idea that it represents the NHS as a whole. By contrast, when it comes to awarding fat contracts to the private sector, our coalition government studiously avoids drawing a generally adverse conclusion about the likes of G4S and Serco, companies under scrutiny for over-charging the government and false accounting.
Before embarking on my recent brief experience of the NHS at Moorfield, I harboured no small degree of scepticism, if not about the level of expertise, then certainly about the waiting times, bureaucracy and quality of patient-care I would encounter. Instead, I have come away proud and grateful to live in a country capable of offering such exemplary service to someone who, literally, walks in off the street. In a world that continues to be driven by crass neo-liberal values, NHS is something rare and precious. We must do all we can to keep it; and if, by the next election, it has been largely sold off, then we must fight to take it back.