On first impressions, Blaenau Ffestiniog looks like a typical Welsh town. The shadows of mountains can be seen in every direction and lakes are spread across the landscape. Square patches of grass and neat flower arrangements adorn the front gardens of grey houses. On the high street, local Welsh folk can be found standing outside pubs, smoking fags and, assumedly, talking about rugby.
On closer inspection, however, there are a few things that distinguish Blaenau Ffestiniog from a typical Welsh town. There is a desolate slate quarry with all its derelict furnishings for young children to climb and an old-fashioned steam train that takes passengers through the valleys to the other side of North Wales. Blaenau Ffestiniog is also home to the world's longest zip-wire after it was recently moved from its previous location a few miles down the road in Bethesda.
My dad spent his childhood in Blaenau Ffestiniog. He lived in one of those little grey houses, he ran with his friends down the old slate mine and he rode the idyllic railway train. Over the years, my dad has told me plenty of stories about this little Welsh town. As a proud Old Labour man, there is one story in particular that he is fond of reciting. This is a story set in Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1952, four years after the creation of the National Health Service.
Before the birth of the NHS, most people in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and indeed many other working class neighbourhoods across Britain, couldn't afford private healthcare and thus had to seek alternative means to deal with their ailments. This often included homemade remedies. When my grandparents were young, for example, they tried to cure tonsillitis by wrapping sweaty old socks around their throats. This, unsurprisingly, led to further, more damaging ailments and they had homemade, and equally misguided, remedies for those.
Childbirth was particularly troubling before the NHS. If you couldn't afford healthcare, you would have to rely on someone in your local community to deliver your child. If you were lucky, you knew a midwife, a nurse, or a doctor, who would be generous enough to help your family without charge. If you didn't have such folk at your disposal, then a friend, a neighbour or a family member - often the pregnant woman's mum - would take responsibility.
There weren't many doctors in Blaenau Ffestiniog and therefore my dad, had the NHS not been created, would have had to place his life in the hands of my great-grandma. I'm not sure whether my great-grandma was any good at delivering babies and, thankfully, we will never know. You see, my dad was part of the first generation of working class children to be born in a hospital.
When my grandma went into labour, a message was sent to explain that assistance was needed in the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. A state-funded ambulance arrived and state-funded paramedics helped soothe my grandma during the agonizing journey to the state-funded hospital.
In the hospital, after hours of labour, my grandma gave birth to a boy. My granddad, after spending the night with his seemingly healthy new-born son, left his wife in the hospital so that he could earn his wages the next day - this was normal among working class people in the 1950's. That next day, while my granddad was scaffolding at a nearby power station, one of his fellow workers handed him an urgent telegram. It read that there was a problem with his boy. My granddad immediately dropped everything and raced to the hospital.
My grandparents weren't told precisely what was wrong with their son. In those days, according to my somewhat nostalgic dad, doctors didn't explain a child's ailment as they assumed that normal people wouldn't be able to understand the diagnosis. The doctors simply told my grandparents that they would do what they could, but my dad would likely die in the next few days. My grandparents called for a local priest to come to the hospital and read my dad his last rites and they waited, grief-stricken.
My dad was placed in intensive care. My grandparents waited through the night in the hospital - shunning the idea of restricted visiting hours - while the doctors monitored and cared for my dad. My grandparents remained under the impression that their son was going to die. As time rolled slowly on, despite the ostensibly bleak diagnosis, the doctors grew increasingly optimistic. After days of treatment and a prolonged period of nervous waiting, the doctors finally told my grandparents some good news. They said that my dad, if cared for properly, would recover.
My grandparents thanked the doctors, the nurses and all those other civil servants who had helped to save their son. After days of anguish, my grandparents finally took their new-born boy back to Blaenau Ffestiniog, where he would later climb slate mines and stick his head out of railway train windows. He never got the chance to ride the zip-wire, but hey, he's only sixty-two, and next time we are in that old slate town, I'm pretty sure that he can overcome his crippling fear of heights. They have state-funded medication for that.
My dad has always made it abundantly clear that, without the NHS, there is no way that he would have survived. The ambulance drivers, the paramedics, the nurses, the midwife, the doctors and everyone else involved in this story were part of the state-funded National Health Service. My family owe a debt of gratitude to those civil servants who fought for my dad's life. We also owe a debt of gratitude to Aneurin Bevan and all those other politicians who fought for the NHS. And yet this story, my dad's story, is just one of so many stories about those that have been saved by our National Health Service. So many of us owe a similar gratitude.
The NHS was created by men and women who believed that an individual's financial status should not dictate whether they live or die. It is the last relic of a time when we better understood the idea of helping our neighbours. Now, more than ever, we need to fight to protect and preserve our nationalised health service. My dad, like myself and so many others, owes his life to the NHS. Without the NHS, he would have never climbed the slate mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog or taken a trip on that idyllic little steam train. Without the NHS, my dad would have simply been another casualty of an unfair system predicated on wealth rather than humanity.Suggest a correction