As I type this on the seventh floor of Barts hospital in London, a bag of cyclophosphamide (a close relation of mustard gas) is being delivered straight into my heart via an arm-mounted catheter. I'm preparing for probably the biggest medical procedure I'll ever have; a transplant of my sister's stem cells that will hopefully cure me of an especially rare, aggressive form of lymphoma. I am at the complete mercy of the NHS. And I am entirely in support of the junior doctors' strike.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health (I'd rather not name him for fear of typos) predicted that the industrial action taking place today and tomorrow, which for the first time includes emergency care as well as scheduled appointments, will be "deeply worrying for patients". Of course, I can't speak for everyone currently undergoing NHS treatment; but what I can tell you is that this ward, which provides outpatient chemotherapy and other daily care procedures for blood cancer patients, is running like clockwork.
When I arrived this morning I was examined by a consultant haematologist who, despite having a monstrously busy day ahead, took the time to reassure me and my partner on several points. Since then I've been looked after by Evie, a brilliant nurse who's checked my blood and urine, given me seven different intravenous treatments (with four more to go) and been as cheery and reassuring as she always is. She's also looking after four of the other five patients in this bay, one of six bays on the ward. I've spotted the charge nurse doing the rounds, checking that no nurse is feeling overwhelmed by today's workload; if they have, they aren't letting on.
I mention all this not arbitrarily, but to refute the widespread suggestion that patient care is being threatened by this week's regrettable but absolutely necessary industrial action. Plenty has been written (like Johann Malawana's excellent piece from earlier today) on why the junior doctors are striking, on the impossible position in which they've been put by the government and the litany of problems with their new contract. That's not my area of expertise; the day-to-day reality of NHS treatment, however, is.
If these walkouts couldn't have been accomplished without endangering patients, they wouldn't be happening. Virtually every NHS staff employee to whom I've spoken about the strikes has said that they view them as a necessary evil. If the junior doctors, who are widely stereotyped as being overpaid and demanding, can be brought in line then other front-line staff are surely next.
And the reality is that, even without the dangerous and grotesquely unfair new contract which Jeremy Hunt (nailed it) is seeking to impose on the junior doctors, you only need to spend a few days in hospital to see just how much pressure the entire NHS is under. During my four inpatient admissions last year, nurses and doctors regularly worked past the end of their shifts to ensure continuity of care or simply make sure stressful procedures were performed by a friendly face rather than a stranger.
I vividly remember a brief exchange with a ward sister the day before my first transplant; she'd just declined her scheduled break so she could sort out a problem with my medication. "No time today! Too much to do! They won't stop" - here, somehow, a smile - "until we're on the floor." The next day she waited around after her shift so she could pop in during the procedure "just to annoy you" - she knew I didn't know the transplant nurses and would welcome a friendly face.
I support the junior doctors' strike at least partly for selfish reasons; I don't believe I'd be able to access this standard of care, free at the point of use, anywhere else in the world. Fewer than 200 people ever have been diagnosed with my cancer, and almost all of them are dead. if I end up as one of the tiny proportion who survive, it'll be down to the extraordinarily dedicated men and women who work longer hours and accept lower wages than they could expect in the private sector because they, like me and (I suspect) like most people who've been thrown on its mercy, believe the NHS to be one of our proudest achievements as a species. And if we don't stand up for the junior doctors today, tomorrow there may be nothing left of it to fight for.
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