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05/07/2018 00:20 BST | Updated 13/07/2018 00:41 BST

The NHS at 70: How The Health Service Changed My Life

From doctors, to patients, to hospital bosses, we hear from people across society who have been cared for by the NHS.

Today marks 70 years since the birth of the National Health Service - the beginning of a system of healthcare that completely transformed the UK. 

Revered around the world, the NHS was once described by former MP Lord Lawson as "the closest thing English people have to a religion". 

It is now ranked as the fifth largest employer globally, with around 1.7 million people working for the health service. The same staff deal with one million patients every 36 hours. 

To mark seven decades of the NHS, HuffPost UK spoke to five people about just how the it has touched their lives – and how they have seen the health service change over the past 70 years.   

Valerie Hammond: ‘The NHS means everything to me’

Valerie Hammond
76-year-old Valerie Hammond believes she was one of the first children to have an operation on the NHS in 1948

Valerie Hammond’s memories of the NHS in Birmingham stretch back to a time before many of today’s doctors, and in some cases, their parents, were even born.

Now a volunteer at the city’s Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, the 76-year-old believes she was one of the first children to have an operation on the National Health Service when it was launched in 1948.

“I was six years old and I went into Birmingham Children’s Hospital for an eye operation,” Hammond remembers.

But her experience was quite different to what children today can expect from a stay in hospital.

“I remember when I came round after the operation, there were about six of us in the room in cots,” she said. “My wrist was tied to the cot rails so I wouldn’t touch the bandages around my eyes.

“Parents and mothers weren’t allowed to come and see the children in those days. My mother could stare at me through a little window in the door – that was all she was allowed to do. So it was a pretty grim routine.”

Nonetheless, Hammond is nothing but grateful for what the NHS did for her 70 years ago.

“I don’t know what my situation would have been like,” she said when asked what her parents would have done without the NHS. “I suppose they would have found the money [for the operation] from somewhere - it’s only in later years I have realised how lucky we are now.

“The NHS means everything to me,” Hammond added. “If it hadn’t of been for the NHS, where would I be now?”

Dame Julie Moore: ‘It represents the very best of  this country’

PA Archive/PA Images
Dame Julie Moore started her career in the NHS as a graduate nurse 

Dame Julie Moore, now the chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham, started her career in the NHS in the 1980s as a graduate nurse.

“In some ways it was very different and in some ways it was just the same,” she said. “There weren’t things like lifting aids back then – you did a lot more by hand.

“There were also fewer doctors around and they did longer hours, but the work wasn’t as intense. What we expect of people has changed quite a lot. We expect an awful lot more of people in terms of their knowledge of the kit and the interventions we can do with patients.”

Moore was inspired to to become a nurse during a stay in hospital as a teenager. “I watched them work with old people and severely ill people and I liked their approach,” she said. “I thought: ‘That’s something worthwhile doing’.

“Maybe you’re idealistic at that age, but I don’t think it’s ever lost on me that doing something where you can make a difference in somebody else’s life is important and very rewarding.”

That feeling was never clearer than at an event to celebrate 3,000 successful kidney transplants at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, the CEO said.

“It was a brilliant day of celebration – there were all these people there who wouldn’t have been, living happy, healthy lives,” Moore continued. “They had come to celebrate the fact the NHS had given them a new lease of life.

“The NHS represents the very best of all we have done in this country. It was a bold decision set up to provide universal care - very few countries had that at that time.

“But because it’s 70 years old now, we’re used to it and sometimes we take it for granted - we need to be careful we don’t lose it or destroy it.”

Zarah Taylor: ‘I will never stop being grateful to them’

Zarah Taylor
Zarah Taylor's daughter Gabriella almost died as a newborn baby (Pictured here with husband Ben Taylor

“It feels like it’s against nature – it’s soul-destroying for someone to tell you that your kid is sick when they look so perfect.”

Zarah Taylor, 31, said she “owes everything” to the NHS after staff in Birmingham saved the life of her newborn baby earlier this year.

Her daughter Gabriella, now four months old, was born prematurely after a difficult pregnancy. “I was diagnosed with diabetes and a disease called cholestasis, where your liver starts to do all sorts of dodgy things,” Taylor said.

But it was when she took baby Gabriella home that she really came to rely on the NHS. In a matter of days, the newborn had lost 20% of her body weight and developed a serious infection under her arms that left her skin “covered in pus”.

Gabriella was rushed into hospital after a midwife making a home visit noticed her symptoms.

“Her kidneys had already started to fail and she was hours away from dying,” Taylor explained in an emotional phone interview. 

“The nurses and staff and doctors were just phenomenal,” she continued, explaining how her daughter was given IV antibiotics and fed through a tube. “They really took care of her - she was like the celebrity of the ward. 

“I will never stop being grateful to them,” Taylor added, saying Gabriella is now “bouncing along”. “I owe them everything.”

Khalid Mahmood MP: ‘I couldn’t have survived’

Flying Colours via Getty Images
NHS staff in Birmingham saved the life of MP Khalid Mahmood when his kidneys failed 

Khalid Mahmood is best known in Birmingham for being the MP for Perry Barr. But like many of his constituents, his life was saved by NHS staff in the city.

In 2014, the Labour politician underwent a kidney transplant after his own began to fail, leaving him relying on dialysis for survival.

“When you’re on dialysis, your blood pressure drops and you become very weak, but you have to try and carry on and have a normal life,” he said. “Essentially, you are a disabled person to a large extent.”  

Eventually, Mahmood’s friend MEP Sion Simon offered to donate one of his kidneys for transplantation. “He essentially told me that I had to have his kidney – as a friend he could see how ill I was. He told me: ‘Give me the consultants name, or I’ll get it myself’. It was phenomenal of him.”

Asked what he would have done if he had lived in a country without a national health service, Mahmood replied: “I couldn’t have survived”.

“I have visited Pakistan where people [with the same condition] suffer and most of them die very easily because they don’t have the same facilities,” he said. “Some don’t even realise their kidneys have failed.

“The National Health Service doesn’t allow you to be in that position. It provides care for everybody – whether you’re rich, poor or whatever.

“That’s the beauty of the NHS – it doesn’t depend on your income, it depends on you being there and being supported.”

On the day that Mahmood was due to be discharged from hospital, nurses on shift worked two hours late to make sure he and other patients could go that home that day.

“They are the real heroes of the NHS, who work tirelessly to provide service to people who are ill,” he said. “They’re life-savers.”

Dr Alfred White: ‘I’ve enjoyed the whole of my career’

Alfred White
Dr Alfred White first qualified in 1970 

Psychiatrist Alfred White qualified as a doctor in 1970, going on to set up the liaison psychiatric unit at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 1994.

During his 48 years working for the NHS, a lot has changed, he said – especially how doctors are seen by patients. “When I joined the NHS, what doctors said went – it wasn’t questioned,” White said. Now, he believes that the public no longer want to listen to professionals.

“It’s a societal thing. It may be that they read more and listen to the radio more, so when professionals get it wrong, they hear about it.”

The number of protocols governing doctors’ actions has also changed dramatically since 1970, White said. “If you had told my predecessors – ‘You need to treat a patient this way, because the NICE guidelines say such and such’, they would have impolitely said: ‘Bugger off, I’m the specialist, I decide what to do’.

“There’s been a big change in society and the changes in the NHS reflect that - some good, some bad,” he continued.

“But I’ve enjoyed the whole of my career. I love psychiatry - I always have and still do. It is a subject where you can do an awful lot for people and really help them.

“Recently, somebody passed away who I had treated for a long time. Their spouse came and said to me: ‘We couldn’t have managed over 30 years without your help.’

“You’re just trying to help, that’s what your job is.”