By Graham Pearcey

Things have a way of coming around with something you might mistake for vengeance or poetic justice. In this case it was my pelvis hitting the pavement in perfect edge-on alignment. There isn’t a scratch on the bicycle; It feels like it could be bad, but you fool yourself into thinking the pain will pass. 

You call a friend, the one you always call at times like this: Bob peels me off the pavement, muttering something about growing old gracefully, throws the bike in the back of his car, and squashes me, buckled with pain, through the passenger door like a soggy parcel too big for the letterbox. 

PICTURE: Bob Massa

“Straight to A&E for you, my boy,” says he. And there we are, in the Conquest carpark, my legs flopped uselessly out of the open door as he trots off for a wheelchair. We weave our way drunkenly across the tarmac and check in at a little bank-teller-style window. It’s a stock-in-trade A&E waiting-room scene: a sprinkling of patients – women, men and children and the customary nutcase giving the security crew a run for their money. 

And there you are, watching it all unfold. The place you never want to be. You’re a ball of sweat at the National Health Service coalface. And there’s the reminder of that poignant irony coming round to smack me in the chops. 

Just weeks ago, I’d written a piece on the NHS for this paper (HIP Issue 133: Battle Lines for the NHS). Not too flattering, how it’s terminally ill; death by a thousand policy cuts; great people and a great institution being hollowed out by neglect, cynicism and predatory market forces. And I’d just walked into the lion’s den.

Thank God it’s not a busy evening and we don’t have to wait long. Ivanka summons us to a cubicle for a preliminary assessment. It’s hardly a high-tech affair. “I fell off my bike and it hurts a lot,” I tell her, enough to qualify me for a trolley and admission to the inner sanctum where worlds collide. Indeed, it’s a United Nations of health care, a shimmering mélange of races and skills, from the Zimbabwean nurse who administers my first shot of morphine to the Panamanian consultant who sends me for CAT scans after concluding that the x-rays aren’t telling the whole story. 

I’m glad he did. They were about to pack me off home with paracetamol, wet-wipes and a Zimmer frame when it was decided that pain like mine can only signify a fracture. Turns out it’s the hip-joint, the socket part, and a tricky little number to fix. It’s well after midnight when I’m finally sent up to the ward – and Bob finally goes home. 

If they decide to operate, it’ll be in Brighton where the pelvis wizards live. That’s how the new NHS works, concentrated resources in ‘centres of excellence’. Not everyone’s happy about it but right then it was a relief to know that the local orthopaedic crew, masters of hip and knee replacements, freely admit they have limits.

It’s 7am the following morning and the orthopaedic consultant, retinue in tow, drops by. Early forties, crisp white shirt, perfect half-Windsor, not a hair out of place, he might have stepped straight off Holby City. Brighton are in the loop, and they agree. Send him home but put no weight on that left leg for twelve weeks. But first I’ll spend another week in the ward learning how to get in and out of bed, how to hop around on a Zimmer frame and on crutches. 

I quickly forge relations with the health crew, the lowly health care assistants, the HCAs who are the backbone, the very pulse of our hospital services, working twelve-hour shifts night and day; and the other patients, the hip-and-knee-op people on my ward. One pair are octogenarians, unsure when they’ll be allowed home – or whether they have homes anymore. No handy slot for the system to patch them into. 

I saw the consultant just once more – seven in the evening of that first day. He looked reassuringly disheveled after 12 hours.

What the NHS lacks in financial resources, it makes up for with love and dedication. But love can only go so far because from time to time it must surely flow the other way – from us, from government. Because when it works, this NHS thing of ours is a living miracle. 

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