I Needed a Crutch

A recent visit to St Mary’s Hospital opened Gareth Rees’s mind about race, professionalism and the importance of the National Health Service.

I needed a crutch. No, I don’t mean religion, or someone to do my thinking, or incessant sex or morphine. I mean a crutch like Long John Silver used. I got upended on a wet linoleum floor and a foot paid the price for a lack of mindfulness. But where do I get a crutch? It has to be a hospital.

I called a taxi to take me to St. Mary’s Hospital. The driver praised the beauty of the day. After he’d seen me hobble to a cash machine he told me he was waiting for a hip replacement but had postponed the operation because he was busy at the moment trying to get elected as the UKIP candidate for St. Thomas’s ward. He’d lived and worked all his life in Portsmouth. He had been the landlord at the Milton Arms pub for eight years.

The waiting room at St. Mary’s reminded me of being in a wide-bodied jet ‘plane. A stewardess gave me a form to fill out. It gave a big list of races and I was to choose one. But I didn’t know if I was English, Welsh or Jewish or an outsider. I thought writing “the human race” would cover it but the human race didn’t appear amongst the options. I found a space and wrote it in anyway.

An electronic message board said that waiting time could extend to two and a half hours, but my name was called after only twenty minutes and I was taken to a small office where I was asked questions such as how much beer I drank every day. The answers were tapped into a computer.

After the interrogation, I returned to the waiting room where I began to tackle The Sun crossword. I’d just found the solution to a clue which was “the year dot” when I was called again to another office where the nurse commentated on two of my claims: that I was a member of the human race and that I had a fondness for beer. He suggested the pain in my foot could be attributable to gout. Did he not believe I’d fallen over? A cynical chill drifted through me as I recalled George Bernard Shaw’s witticism that the professions were a conspiracy against the laity. Priests need sinners, teachers need ignorance, law enforcers need law-breakers, dentists need bad teeth and hospitals need the sick.

I sat in a corridor awaiting an X-ray. Through open doors I could see people sitting alone in little rooms looking at computer screens. I thought of monks in cells working on manuscripts.

At last a radiologist came to collect me. He noticed my difficulty in walking and found a wheelchair with which to push me to the X-ray room. He had a foreign accent and I asked him where he was from.

‘Nigeria,’ he said.

I replied, ‘Goodbye Goodluck Jonathan.’

‘The new president is like the last one,’ he said. ‘So much corruption. Ordinary people lack good drinking water.’

I was wheeled back to the nurse practitioner. ‘What’s the difference between a nurse and a nurse practitioner?’ I wondered but didn’t ask. The nurse practitioner said there was much bruising but no broken bones. He gave me some pills and a walking stick and I thanked him and said to myself, ‘Long live the National Health Service.’