You think you know what it’s like when you pass through the doors of the Accident & Emergency department in one of our NHS hospitals. And if you don’t, no doubt one day you will. What you don’t get is speeding trolleys crashing through double swing doors with a team of uber-attractive medics dressed in body-hugging scrubs, all shouting information about sugar levels, pulse rates, hydrohopylyoxidine count and where they’re all going to meet for drinks and who knows what else later in the evening. It isn’t like that.
You should know that the first thing you come across is a reception counter modeled on the UK Border Control desk at Calais and staffed by a couple of seen-it-all-before clerical workers employed to ensure stress-free shifts for the doctors and other health care workers relaxing with cigars and single malt whiskeys in comfortable well padded armchairs in their taxpayer funded private lounge. And these gatekeepers are good at their job.
Between you and the receptionists are a woman in a wheelchair, a man on crutches, a yoof carrying an unhappy baby, and a guilty looking woman holding the hand of a child with a nasty lump on his forehead. You know it’s going to be a while; you could die simply waiting to get served; where are my taxes going, you will ask.
At last it’s your turn. She asks your name. She thinks, “I see no broken limb; I see no glass splinters lodged in facial skin, I see no dramatic flow of blood from an axe attack. Skiver, malingerer.” Her eyes glaze over, flicker towards the crossword on her desk. She sniffs, says, “What can we do for you? Name and date of birth?” You hear, “Why don’t you speak to your pharmacist, you burden on the state?” You explain your symptoms, point to the hurting bits, make a troubled face and pat your forehead with a tissue. She sighs, types, says, “Take a seat. You are twenty third in the queue.” You hear, “I hope it hurts when they take blood.” You note the silver death head ring on her left hand.
You look around the waiting area; you see a scattering of empty chairs. You want to avoid sitting next to the drunk, the old man holding the vomit bowl, the yoof with the unhappy baby. You note a pile of magazines – “Brad and Kaia invite HiYa into their home to photo their latest makeover”, wall posters picturing dangerous mosquitoes, a pile of leaflets inviting you to contribute to the Doctors’ Benevolent Fund. You take a seat, mainly because you know it’s going to be a long wait, but also because you sense these people with their different coloured uniforms, their rubber gloves, their upside-down watches and their threatening stethoscopes don’t take kindly to subversive behaviour even from someone as socially esteemed as yourself. You pointedly ignore the friendly/needy/angry people on either side of you and take out your Jane Austen/newspaper/comic just in time for your name to be called out and to be summonsed to a cubicle where you are seated and the curtains half drawn to ensure there is minimal privacy.
The nurse/nurses-aid/porter/definitely-not-a-doctor is friendly, smiling, caring. You are suddenly on your guard. You won’t let this act fool you. She looks at some notes, asks your name, date of birth. You wonder why that information isn’t already there – typical state inefficiency. You think to complain, but decide discretion now, valour later. She sticks a crocodile clamp on your finger, pumps up your arm, watches a screen on a bleeping machine, makes a note. She sticks something in your ear; “Temperature’s normal”, she reassures. Scribbles in the notes. You note the death head tattoo on her neck. “Back to the waiting room then,” she says; you hear, “Out! There are more needy patients than you.” She’s using your first name. You raise your eyebrows at her. She smiles sweetly and holds the curtain for you. You walk back towards the waiting room, aloof, at your own pace, swaggering to demonstrate your independence.
The denizens of the waiting room watch you approach, stare at you without shame. They wonder who this imposter is; they see no broken limb, splinters of glass, no embedded axe. They look at each other, knowingly. They whisper to each other studying you closely. One or two of them make phone calls while not taking their eyes off you. You wonder, undercover police? Russian agents? The Murphy brothers? You check out the exit doors, open windows, fire axes. You walk slowly to a vacant seat with your arms hanging slightly bent at your sides like Clint Eastward on a dusty high street as he sashays towards three bandannad outlaws who are soon to die. Your eyes narrow in their sockets. You keep the sun over your left shoulder.
You hardly have your copy of Pride and Prejudice open when once again you are called. A different uniform takes you to a cubicle labeled “Blood Room.” She is once again friendly, sympathetic. God, they are good at this, you think. You think, Rosa Klebb, Cruella de Ville. Nurse Ratched! She says, “This won’t hurt, just a little prick.” You hear, “Have you got a responsible relative or friend with you? Are all your affairs settled? Do your family know where to find your will?” You open your eyes. You watch the uniform remove surgical gloves; your hand moves to your throat, checking for fang marks. You notice the tiny plaster just inside your elbow. You mark the death head earing she is wearing.
You find yourself propelled back to the waiting area, listen to the pretend assurances, the artificial cheeriness of the uniform. You wonder where Dante would place these people.
By now you have worked out their approach – once you are comfortable, settled, have found your place in your book, they advance, call out your name, march you to the cubicles, do things to you. You explore a strategy to counter this – you sit awkwardly on one buttock, act restless; you flick backwards and forwards through your book making noises of exasperation. You stare triumphantly at the nurse manager’s desk emitting scornful snorts at irregular intervals. You know you are in control.
But the system is bigger than we are; it is ruthless, knows not the word, “mercy”. Once more your name is shouted out for all to hear. All snigger. “The doctor will see you now,” whispers the agent. You make your way carefully through the lines of razor wire and snarling Doberman Pinschers. You arrive at the interrogation room; a man with a rubber-hosed stethoscope unsuccessfully hidden in the side pocket of his blood-stained white coat puts out his hand, shakes yours. He asks your name, date of birth. They are double-checking, do not believe your earlier answers. You think to lie to them, to give a false name, a misleading date of birth. You notice a light in the ceiling – it is shining downwards in your direction. Electrodes protrude from a humming machine at your left elbow; a rubber mallet rests in a stainless steel tray. Fear gets the better of you – you cave in, you tell the truth.
“I have your notes and test results. Looking good, looking good,” says the doctor, sucking on a death head pencil; you hear, “We are only following orders; would you like a last cigarette?” He says, “One last thing – a quick trip to the x-ray department; we just want a quick look inside you.” He looks deep into your eyes, probing. You hear, “We need to check your vital organs, assess how much we can get for them on e-bay.” The SAS-trained porter twists your arm behind your back, frog-marches you to the waiting room. “Wait,” he hisses. “It’s a waiting room. You are a waiting patient. So wait.” His death head knuckle-duster bites into your ribs.
The sign says X-ray Department. Your eyes blur, the letters jump; you read, “Dignitas.” A death head coffee mug rests on a slab; it is half empty. You spit out your name and date of birth in a pre-emptive gambit. You reach for the man’s throat but he takes you gently by the shoulders and eases you against a glass plate. “Keep still,” he says. You freeze in protest. Seconds later you are moving back towards the waiting room, following a yellow line painted on the corridor floor. Scarecrows, lions and tin men peep out from behind pillars. You plan a revolution; the waiting patients will rise up. You work on your speech; think Henry V, Joan of Arc. Your crown weighs heavy.
Mr Bennett has only just retreated to the safety of his study when once again you are summonsed. It is the doctor! By now you are broken, cowed. You assume the foetal position. “As we thought,” says the great man, “Everything’s in good order; you are safe to go. Just keep taking the tablets.” You hear, “You are the healthiest person we have seen this week thanks to your admirable lifestyle and attention to your diet, and we love you dearly.”
Back in the waiting area a massed choir of doctors and nurses render Te Deum while consultants and registrars shower you with fresh cherry blossom. The pathway to your car is strewn with rose petals.
You just adore the NHS and all its people.