How Do You Feel?
Like many others around the world, I was fascinated by the opening ceremonies of last year’s London Olympics. The sheep, the supermodels, the Queen’s doppelganger parachuting in alongside the illustrious James Bond - all were memorable sights to be sure. The only portion of the program which seemed perhaps a bit odd to an American’s eye was the proud tribute to the National Health Service, complete with hundreds of real nurses and doctors dancing amongst giant beds in a replica of a ward in London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. As it is customary for a host nation to celebrate what they are most proud of in their opening ceremonies - to showcase their values, and honour what they hold dear - the message was clear, and as director Danny Boyle himself stated following the production, free universal healthcare is “an amazing thing to celebrate”.
When I left for my September trip to the UK, I certainly never dreamed I would return home with an empirical opinion about the National Health Service of Britain. However, when your husband breaks his ankle in three places on the hills of the Isle of Mull, there is no time to consider the politics of universal health care. You simply put your trust in the system and pray for the best. And here’s the truth. The care he received was superlative. From the tiny hospital on Mull, through three ambulance rides and three emergency rooms, with nurses and doctors from hospital wards to operating theatres - at every turn in the road he was treated with the utmost competence, professionalism, and kindness. No prima donna he, our surgeon was highly skilled, forthcoming, clear, and amazingly accessible.
The first sign that we had entered a different system from the one we are accustomed to here in the States was the question I was asked at the first reception desk I encountered. Instead of our usual, “how do you plan to pay for this?”, I heard, “how is your husband feeling?”. This attitude was pervasive throughout his surgery and hospital stay. I have been in emergency rooms in the US when my father was having a stroke and, even in that dire situation, before anything was done for him we were queried incessantly about his ability to pay for any treatment he might require. Clearly, Great Britain ran on a different system.
Our family has been fortunate in that we have been consistently able to pay for our health insurance, (which I assure you, is no small feat for the self-employed American) and we have enjoyed excellent medical care. However, we have many friends who earn their living in the arts and who quite simply could never afford the astronomical cost of health insurance in this country. They live in constant concern that an illness or injury may visit their door. Their six year old may take a bad fall on the playground, a cold may turn out to be something worse. Entire savings can easily be wiped out, bankruptcies can occur, houses can be lost, with even one serious illness. One artist friend, recently hospitalised for two days with high blood pressure, was visited bedside by a lady on staff inquiring how she was planning to pay for her stay. The entire bill for those two days was over ten thousand dollars and included a bill from that questioning lady herself. Clearly, our system doesn’t work for everybody.
One would think, one could hope, that our elected officials might find it prudent to manage to work together in an effort to address this problem, but when our plane landed back here in the States we were met with a Congress willing to shut down the entire government in a petulantly political attempt to block revisions to the health care status quo. The Affordable Health Care act is a law that has already been passed and still they hold the country at ransom in an effort to repeal or block it. I am grateful for a President who had the guts to try and change what is clearly not working and while the new law may not be perfect, it is a recourse our friends without health insurance thankfully now possess. It is humiliatingly painful to see those who refuse to even try to help make it work, or make it better. In my own state, our governor is simply ignoring it completely. The health care of a nation is an issue that should transcend politics. To hold it hostage is a slap in the face to those in need.
Perhaps I shall be assailed for these opinions. It is true that my experience with the NHS in Britain, though serious, was brief, and there are no doubt plenty of British citizens with critical views on aspects of their system of which I am unaware. It is also true that the so-called American Dream marches hand-in-hand with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, “make your own way” philosophy and anything that hints of a variation in that creedo is, by some, suspect. But I believe the prevailing question of, “how can you pay”, instead of “how do you feel” creates an atmosphere that moves insidiously throughout the soul of a nation, too easily turning the sick and the needy into “deadbeats” and “shirkers” and eventually stripping away our compassion, our humanity, our greatness. I am embarrassed that my country, the richest nation in the world, is ranked thirty-eighth in health care. Now, after my experience in Great Britain, I have seen another way and know that changes are possible. If only we can find the courage to make them.