A week ago I was working with the Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, laundering refugees’ discarded clothes for redistribution.
Now I’m sitting in the back of a van in a hospital carpark in Yorkshire, UK. My breath is steam. There’s ice on the inside of the windows. The cold woke me frequently last night, even though I was wrapped in two sleeping bags. In fitful bouts of sleep I dreamed of the refugees in camp Moria on Lesvos, outside with barely a blanket per family as temperatures there also dropped below freezing.
I was in Lesvos when the text came. Someone I love is ill, very ill. How ill? Hospital ill. Hospital doesn’t know what’s wrong with them and starts a battery of scary tests – that kind of ill.
I wasn’t due back in the UK for a week. I don’t usually fly. For environmental reasons, I skip across Europe overland. Coach from Manchester to Budapest, sleeper trains across eastern Europe to Greece, then ferry to the islands. It costs about £250, Manchester to Lesvos; not bad for five days travel including ‘accommodation’ on board.
But someone I love is ill. How rigid are my principles? At 8pm I text back: “Let’s see what the doctor says tomorrow. I’ll decide then.” I receive no response. At 10pm I text again: “Shall I just book a flight?” I receive no response. At midnight: “I’ve booked a flight. I’ll be there 11pm tomorrow.”
‘Tomorrow’ is New Year’s Eve. It’s not a direct flight – I have to change planes in Brussels. My UK family tells me a terrorist attack is expected in Brussels on New Year’s Eve.
Opposite the airport in Mytilene in the south of Lesvos there’s a tiny church on the shore. I take a stroll while waiting to board, and try the church door. It opens. There are candles burning and candles unlit by the door. I put a couple of euros in the donation box, light a candle for my loved one, light another for Marwas and all the refugees fleeing war and terror.
As I board, the air stewardess hands me a pomegranate wrapped in cellophane. “Happy New Year,” she says. “In Greece, pomegranate, for luck.”
Good. I need luck.
In the airport in Brussels everyone has to take off their shoes to get through passport control.
I’m in the hospital in Yorkshire by the time fireworks explode to mark the turning of the year. I’ve never been that big on New Year’s Eve and right now it feels like a farce. What does it matter what numbers are on the calendar, if I’m going to lose the person I love? I can’t see the fireworks through the hospital window from where I’m sitting beside his bed, I can only hear them; they could be distant gunfire.
I think it was the right decision, to fly here. Sitting beside this bed is a bit like standing on the beach at Skala Sykamineas. I’m here to pour love and negate fear, and nothing feels more important than that right now.
I know the NHS is desperately strapped for cash, starved by politics, degraded by the Tories, short of staff. I know nurses are undervalued and underpaid, junior doctors are exhausted and ready to strike, hospitals are rundown.
I’m expecting unkempt wards, neglected patients, uncaring staff, skimpy inedible food.
This National Health Service, despite the battering it’s been given, is miraculous. The nurses are efficient yet gentle, and genuinely care about their patients. The food is reasonable, and regular. Every patient has a water jug, frequently replenished, and orange juice with meals; a tea trolley circulates several times a day. Each bed has a buzzer, and when a patient buzzes, a nurse nearly always appears within a minute.
All this is free, for every person rich or poor.
In a nearby bed lies a 93 year old Latvian who arrived in the UK as a refugee when he was a young man, having walked across Europe. He thanks the nurses profusely in a weak voice with a trace of eastern European accent, every time they take his blood pressure, stick a needle in his arm to test his blood or hold the urine bottle for him.
We must fight for this miraculous NHS. Don’t be conned into believing it’s so broken that only privatisation can save it.
If our health service wasn’t free, the person whose bed I’m sitting beside probably wouldn’t be here responding to treatment; they’d be dying at home instead.
Sometimes it’s obvious there aren’t enough staff, and for sure with a bit more investment the wards could be cleaner and the care even better and the staff could get properly rewarded for the truly amazing work they do. Surely this is where we want our taxes spent, not on bombs to Syria, not subsidising Parliament’s bar?
The sweet Latvian man died last night, but without the NHS he’d likely have died more suddenly, without chance to say goodbye to his daughter, in agony, alone. This way he was provided with end of life care, pain relief, dignity, and a nurse to tell him “everyone loves you, you know” as he slipped away at dawn.
If you are a nurse – thankyou, thankyou.