universal health careI have tried to get my head around the unravelling drama around President Obama’s healthcare bill, and have not completely succeeded. But one thing is clear to me: that it is a tragedy that something which should have been about helping the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, should have become something that simultaneously succeeds in trampling other vulnerable places in the body politic. The rights of conscience of those who live in a different ethos from the mainstream liberal ‘consensus’ is one such unacceptable casualty.

And yet I have just spent a week in the midst of the very situation that those who perhaps naively supported Obama had in mind when they did so. Falling unexpectedly ill, I was admitted as an emergency patient to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, and found myself in what I can only call the guts (literally) of the NHS – the National Health Service. For several days, while they conducted tests and tried to diagnose what was wrong with me, I was in the central part of a public ward, close to the nurses’ station. While this was completely incompatible with getting any sleep, at least it gave me a fascinating insight into what it is like to be both sick, and to nurse, within a public health system which while frequently criticised for its failings, nonetheless does one crucial thing. To offer people, of any class or background, no matter how ‘productive’ or ‘deserving’, compassionate care in their moment of dread need.

In my section there were several women who had undergone serious abdominal surgery, with all the intensive care needs that this results in. Catheters, drips, you name it. They were often in pain, clearly afraid, and needed assistance for the simplest bodily functions. My condition was mild in comparison. All night I listened to what I can only describe as heroic dedication on the part of the nurses who cared for them in what by American standards were far from ideal. And I was completely blown away by the complexity of their task. Now that nurses are crushed by bureaucratic exigencies, having to write down and notate every single little action with regard to patients, you would expect them to fail to actually ‘nurse’ – in the old-fashioned sense. And yet, somehow, in spite of being massively over-stretched, most of these women (and a few men) did an amazing job of balancing the two things. The human interactions they had to undertake, responding to the needs of very different people and very different case-histories, were massively complex. The lady next to me was suffering from dementia, and kept calling out, trying to leave her bed, or detach her catheter. Not once did any of the nurses lose her temper, they just cajoled and persuaded her back to bed, each in their different manner. Over, and over again.

I know mistakes (small ones) were being made all the time. Feeling scared and extremely vulnerable myself, I dreaded being the victim of one. Communication was not always what it could have been – nurses are sometimes asked to carry out orders from the doctors without being given the power to explain these fully or reassure the patient about their personal impact. Things like this could be remedied, but you can see that the doctors too are massively over-stretched. They could be due to make a ward-round when an urgent case comes in and they are called to surgery without any notice. They have a huge list of patients to deal with every day.

Yes, the National Health Service suffers from under-funding, waste and a lack of efficiency (all connected, surely). But it is free. Because of that it is undoubtedly abused by those who have slid into the ‘culture of dependency’. And middle class people increasingly try to cover themselves so as to opt out of the purgatorial experience that it can often offer. We ourselves have a rather low-grade (because cheap) insurance policy which I could not use in the situation I found myself in. But most people cannot afford even that. And sometimes it is good for intelligent and articulate people to witness life on the other side: chaotic, foolish, craven, whatever. It is still humanity. These are the poor. They may not be as materially poor as in other countries, but they have been made spiritually and psychologically poor by the prevailing culture of hedonism and fast-track consumerism that surrounds their unwittingly unexamined lives.

As I lay in the prep room for one diagnostic test, I tasted this extreme. A drunk and dishevelled woman lay semi-conscious, thrashing and groaning, in the bed opposite me. Added to my own sense of complete weakness and fear, the sound of this struggling soul at first hit me like something out of Dante’s Inferno. Yet as I desperately ran the beads of my rosary between my sweaty fingers, I felt the overwhelming presence of what I can only describe as pure love, trying to reach out through the darkness to both of us. Lord, have mercy on us, for we know not what we do.

Human beings find themselves on every rung of the ladder, in every condition of being, from the well-organised and apparently functional, to the wreck of a life which drugs and drink can wreak. Yet we all need the hand and voice of compassion, because in the end, however much we try to avoid it, we all have to face the same moment of extremis. I wish the left could recollect that there is more to compassion than the material: but I also wish the right could recollect that there is more to freedom than the self. I have a hunch that conservatism will not win over the majority until it is conserving the right thing.

Meanwhile, it is a marvel to me that people labouring in an imperfect system, who are not allowed to speak of God and are stretched to the limit, can still approach the suffering flesh of the wretched with such grace.

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