It’s mindboggling to think that the NHS turns 70 on 5 July 2018. It’s even more mindboggling because that means that for the first two years of my father’s life (sorry for revealing your age, Pa!), there was no NHS.
The idea of life without the NHS is hard to comprehend...
Regular readers of my blog DeafinitelyGirly.com will know that I blog about my experiences as a deaf person and that I am very clear in my belief that no one size fits all when it comes to deafness. And I guess that’s my disclaimer here – this is my experience of the NHS and what it means to me. No one size fits all. We all have different experiences. I know I am lucky.
For me, I’ve nearly always associated the NHS with my deafness. Until I was 10 I didn’t know I was deaf. But I also didn’t really need free healthcare. At 10 however, I was suddenly thrust into the world of NHS deafness – soundproof boxes, cumbersome hearing aids, radio aids, hearing tests that made me cry, brain scans, other time-consuming scary tests. Medical staff were very thorough, but I wasn’t very grateful for it.
I lived much of my twenties and an early part of my thirties choosing not to wear hearing aids. Choosing not to check in with an audiology clinic. Choosing just to be me. And oddly, that was when I had my first big non-deafness encounter with the NHS – aged 29 – emergency surgery for appendicitis.
I remember I’d put off getting a doctor’s appointment because I couldn’t hear on the phone and there was no online appointment option. I remember my housemate finding me doubled up in the hallway of our flat and calling the GP for me, and I remember the GP being very happy that I had found someone to make that call.
Hospitals when you’re deaf are tricky because naturally the doctors and nurses are focussing on their jobs, which makes lipreading more than a little difficult. I went full out on telling everyone I encountered that I was deaf and needed to lipread, and where possible they were great.
The anaesthetist kept his mask off until the last minute and explained everything in advance. He also let me keep my glasses on until I was knocked out because I’m so short-sighted I can’t lipread without them. When I came around from the surgery, the first thing the nurse did was put my glasses back on my face. It was those little things that made being deaf in a scary situation so much more bearable.
And then, in 2012, I decided to try hearing aids again and wow the NHS did good. Appointments were sorted online, tests were done – with the door open because I find those soundproof rooms incredibly claustrophobic – and I found myself walking out the door, after just a four-week wait, with my hearing aids.
"Give it at least three months," my audiologist warned me. "Be patient and see what happens."
And he was so right. The first month was definitely challenging. I panicked each night when I took out my hearing aids and was met with a muted world – a world I had previously been happy with. I became overwhelmed at work, tired on the tube, crabby over dinner. But there were many good moments, like the first time I heard an office phone ring and burst into tears at the joy of it. I still didn’t answer it though! I discovered what a cat’s meow sounds like – albeit at a lower pitch, and I also discovered the joy of Apple ringtones… and spent one joyous evening playing them one after the other having never heard them before.
And now, I couldn’t imagine my world without hearing aids. But it was down to the patience and perseverance of my audiology clinic to work out what was right for me. They provide me with free batteries, new moulds, new tubings, check-ups, and reassuring emails when I think I’ve broken my precious hearing aids. They make time for me when really, I know they’re just as busy and stretched and stressed as many other parts of the NHS.
Of course, the NHS doesn’t always work well for me as a deaf person. There was the time I went to a walk-in clinic with a bad burn and missed my turn because I didn’t hear my name being called and they were so busy the receptionist forgot to mention to the medical staff I was deaf. I campaigned successfully for vibrating pagers at London Walk-In centres – like the kind you get in food places – for deaf people to use instead. If you’ve encountered them, let me know...
I think what I’ve come to realise is that I am incredibly lucky with the services I get on the NHS. I’ve been lucky to get amazing hearing aids, amazing support and amazing emergency care when I needed it. But I don’t take it for granted. I see others who haven’t got what they needed, and I see the struggles of my friends who work for the NHS – the decisions they have to make every day, the targets they have to meet, the hours they have to work...
It’s not a job I could do. And I have utmost admiration for the people that do it every day, in whatever capacity.
So as the NHS turns 70, I guess I just want to say thank you– to the medical staff I’ve encountered along the way, to the people who want to make services better for me as a deaf person, and to the people who have done exactly that.
Happy 70th Birthday NHS. Here’s to 70 more?!