Book Review: Dear NHS // Edited by Adam Kay

Photograph by Charlie Clift, in The Times

Juno Dawson describes the NHS as one of her favourite things about the UK. And it’s true; it is an incredible service; an integral part of what it means to be British. Dawson lists this amongst Yorkshire puddings, our love of swearing “that appals the Yanks”, and the Spice Girls. In fact all ten of the points she mentioned in Dear NHS are pretty spot on, encapsulating British culture perfectly.

But the NHS is special: it has helped all of the 66 million people in this country, and continues to do so under the huge strain of the CoVid-19 pandemic.

My appreciation for the NHS started at a young age, as I used to fall over a lot. I’d be standing still and all of a sudden, my knees would lock out of place and I’d be on the floor. Thanks to the free healthcare in this country, I was able to access physios, knee specialists, MRI scans, and eventually receive operations on each knee. Without the NHS, I’d probably be hobbling around and falling over a lot. Now that only happens after a few gins.

The National Health Service was there for me again when I returned home from Haiti in 2015. I was experiencing the strangest phenomenon: itchiness. Imagine that sharp pain of an itch left for too long, but all over your body 24/7. After a couple of sleepless nights I was willing to have my skin removed. My parents agreed to take me to the one place that could potentially fix my distress: A&E. After a brief worry that I’d picked up Malaria, the hospital gave me all kinds of tests, sorted me out and a few days later I was good as new.

It wasn’t Malaria, but since then I’ve made a habit of not missing important pills. It never has the best consequence. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I count on the NHS, but I know it will always be there for me, without serving up a hefty bill at the end.

The National Health Service doesn’t discriminate between poor and rich; it doesn’t require special insurance; yet it provides the best healthcare in the country. Even the the richest and most powerful people rely on it. Let’s not forget, the Prime Minister was in an NHS hospital bed a matter of months ago.

Dear NHS is comprised of 109 essays by celebrities and writers, on why they love the NHS; and how the doctors, nurses, anaesthetists, receptionists, cleaners, and just about every other role that makes up this great institution, are indispensable. The book describes how these people work tirelessly with the reward of terrible pay, regular funding cuts and long hours. Despite this, they put their lives at risk everyday to help us during this pandemic. The NHS staff are truly admirable, and the stories in this book remind us of just that. Contributors to the book range from Ed Sheeran, Jimmy Carr and Louis Theroux, to Paul McCartney and Malala Yousafzai.

The stories have been edited by writer and ex-junior doctor Adam Kay. In the introduction, Kay writes, “The NHS is our single greatest achievement as a country” and throughout this book we are reminded of this; many of the contributors mentioning that they would not be alive were it not for the NHS. Marian Keyes, for example, would not have phoned an ambulance after her suicide attempt, had it not been free. Similarly, Reni Eddo-Lodge states that the NHS providing her blood transfusion ultimately saved her life.

The book begins with the near death experiences that is Graham Norton’s stabbing. It’s a shocking story that completely surprised me. Norton describes the kind nurse that holds his hand and tells him he going to die.

The book is littered with heart-warming moments, such as Caitlin Moran’s beautiful description of giving blood; or the doctor who let Jack Whitehall watch the ’98 World Cup through the door as he’s being given stitches. Along with these, there are light-hearted tales, such as Louis Theroux’s giant testicle. His account really juxtaposes Malala Yousafzai’s profound piece the page after, but somehow the stories in the book blend together perfectly.

Dawn French’s account of losing her mother was one of the stories that really touched me. I cried. She points out that she hates Derriford Hospital, “but try telling me there’s a better hospital for my family. You can’t. Because there isn’t. It’s sort of miraculous there.” This explains the feelings many of us feel towards hospitals: they can be places where we experience deep sadness, but the staff will do anything to comfort us. She describes the staff as “quietly, respectfully doing their jobs so well, and helping us all to pass through this difficult, sacred, unforgettable moment the best they could”.

Dear NHS reflects the sadness experienced within hospitals, entwined with moments of joy: kind nurses; miraculous births. John Niven’s story alone does this, when describing the stressful situation of finding out his neighbour was overdosing on heroin. He goes on the describe the act of shoving ice cubes up the neighbour’s bum to wake him up. It proves somewhat successful, but calling an ambulance is the better solution.

Daisy May Cooper’s rendition of giving birth and then the aftermath (being constipated for 8 days) is one of the more hilarious stories in the book. Her description of the “metre-long anaconda snake of shit” is quite a picture. The story of a nurse helping her through this ‘issue’ shows the NHS is there for us for the smaller things too, not just life and death situations. Whilst a nurse grabbing a laxative for Cooper is such a small task, it was a blessing nonetheless. Cooper describes the nurse as “that angel in blue”, also noting that she “cried on the toilet in gratitude”.

Daisy May Cooper’s story, along with the other 108, reminds us that within the NHS there are so many helpful extra jobs staff carry out. The laxatives are quickly forgotten about by the nurses, but mean so much to patients that they can recant them years later. In his chapter, Steven Fry notes, “we in Britain need to remind ourselves from time to time how our individual unextraordinary stories add up to something so highly extraordinary after all. Did we need a pandemic to be reminded?” This quote sums up the book perfectly: that every tiny cog in the NHS machine is essential. This book is exactly what we need for the next time we forget what an amazing thing the NHS is; or the next time there’s a question of whether the doctors and nurses in this country deserve a pay rise.

As Benjamin Zephaniah’s powerfully states, “I made it because someone had a dream of healthcare for all… And when I go into that little room, I vote for it… The NHS is for life, not just emergencies”.

Words by Amber Middleton

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