The NHS at 70: patients look back on experiences of care

Undated handout photo issued by London Ambulance Service of an ambulance used in the capital during

Undated handout photo issued by London Ambulance Service of an ambulance used in the capital during the 1930s. Photo: London Ambulance Service/PA Wire - Credit: PA

To celebrate the 70th birthday of the National Health Service, we gathered memories from members of the St Albans Patients Group about the brilliant staff who make our health service what it is.

These stories cover the care given to people from childhood, through emergency care, to death, and are published as the government celebrates the service’s milestone with an extra £20 billion a year spending money.

Hannah Ainsworth from St Albans said: “When I was a child of about six I was referred to the Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Hemel Hempstead Hospital.

“We were being taught to read and write at school and, as the younger sister to an energetic and talkative brother, my conversational skills were immature.

“After falling behind in class, my teacher recommended my parents speak with my doctor about my hearing. Sometimes it was as if I was completely absent from class activities.

“After some basic tests, I was referred to a smiley audiologist with bright earrings. I sat on a large cushion in a sound-proofed room on the hospital, and they placed black plastic headphones with a curly cord over my ears.

“I wrapped my fingers around a black plastic ‘buzzer’ and was told to listen out for sounds. My mum and the audiologist shut the door behind them with a soft slump. I began the test.

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“Beep. Beep. Beep. I had a busy mind, and after some while I had forgotten whether I was pressing for real sounds or imaginary sounds.

“The test finished and I peered up at the lady, nervously waiting for my results. She looked down, and said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your ears poppet, but I do think you need glasses’.

“Over 20 years later, my hearing is still fine. But I am as blind as a bat without glasses. Well-done NHS. You got it right!”

St Albans Patients Group chair John Wigley recalled his own experience: “Not so many years ago I needed emergency care. At 11.30pm on Christmas Eve.

“I went to wish my next door neighbours ‘Happy Christmas’, heard their front door close behind me, and saw their high iron security gate start to close.

“I ran towards it, forgetting the snow and ice and my feet flew from under me. I clutched my present in my left hand and put out my right hand to cushion my fall and just got through the gate.

“Back in my own house, my right hand and wrist began to throb. What to do? Casualty in the early hours of Christmas Day? No thanks. I’d last out the night. At 9am some friends arrived to take me for lunch near Huntingdon. The A&E at the hospital there was a revelation. Carols playing in the background, a receptionist dressed as Father Christmas, Nurses with tinsel in their hair, an affable and cheery doctor, X-rays readily available, diagnosis rapid, and that vulnerable little scarpoid thing (a very unusual bone, so the doc said) quickly strapped up.

“In no time at all I was enjoying a pre-lunch drink or two, having my turkey cut up for me and eating a lovely meal. Thanks and well-done NHS. You saved my Christmas Day. May you have many happy birthdays and lots more £20bn presents.”

Alex from St Albans told how the NHS cares for people at the end of their life: “Recently I was present at a dear friend’s last days and hours battle with cancer. I witnessed the valiant work of the clinical staff trying to deal with the disease and then caring for her to the end in an acute hospital ward. Care at the end of life is the last thing the dedicated staff can do for a patient to make the approach of death as dignified, comfortable and stress-free as possible. The staff did that admirably.

“They continued to make her comfortable, talked to her even though she was unable to respond, and ensured the family were involved in how they planned her changing care to the very end. They even ensured that the family was fed and given hot drinks during the last vigil.

“Afterwards they provided space for the family to grieve, have time with her and say last goodbyes, before undertaking the formal certification and last offices. They showed regard for the family and shared with them the sadness of losing a life.

“The empathy, understanding and compassion shown by all the different staff groups was brilliant and not lost or diminished, despite their workload being so hectic. They maintained their technical and clinical skills alongside their caring and compassionate natures.”