After 35 days waiting for a transplant, I know why our NHS is so special

We must defend the NHS with everything we've got, writes Mark Serwotka



I’ve now been in hospital for 35 days waiting for a suitable heart for a transplant.

While, relatively speaking, that isn’t that long, I’ll admit it’s hard not to feel the frustration at our outdated organ donor system, which really needs to change. That is in no way to diminish the difficult decisions families face, and no transplant patient could ever repay the gift of life they receive.

It is, however, long enough to confirm something I have always known — that seamless public services rely on layers of people most of us rarely see.

When we picture the NHS we mostly think of nurses and doctors. But being in my position, you get to see so much more and it’s truly wonderful.

The porters who ferry you around, the staff who clean the wards and bring your food, the dietitians who say what should be on your plate, the physios who get you back on your feet, and the specialist nurses like my brilliant transplant co-ordinator team here at Papworth. To name just a few.

Of course, over the years it’s been politically convenient to invent a mythical ‘frontline’, and this is a point we have had to challenge constantly in the civil service. It is just that, a myth — because the people you see couldn’t function without the ones you don’t — but it’s provided cover for governments to hack away at staffing and resources in the hope no one will notice. Well, I’m afraid we do.

Take what happened to me just over a week ago. I was told there was a heart, I was getting my transplant. I was prepped and ready to be wheeled into theatre. My wife and son drove up to Cambridge and my daughter jumped on the first train she could from Bristol, where she is studying.

At the last minute, the team did the final examination of the donor heart and found it was diseased. I naturally felt gutted, and it was especially hard on my family. But the professionalism, the standard of care and the support we had at what was an incredibly emotional time were absolutely phenomenal. We couldn’t have been in better hands.

This is something I honestly think Jeremy Hunt and the Tories will never fully grasp, or don’t want to. They don’t have a genuine sense of how the whole NHS is run. Or our other public services, for that matter. They see them as bureaucracies, first to be vilified, the better then to be cut down to size.

I don’t know how long I’m going to be in here before my transplant, but my stay so far really has hardened my resolve to ensuring we defend our NHS with everything we’ve got.

That means defending the services from budget cuts and privatisation. And it means defending the health workers who have been treated appallingly, with their pay and pensions slashed, their contracts ripped up and even hints now that foreign doctors won’t be welcome in the UK in the future.

This last point makes me particularly angry because from day one, when I first started having problems in 2010, I’ve been looked after by fantastic and dedicated doctors and other professionals from all over the world.

We really can’t say it often or loud enough — our NHS is very special. The greatest achievement of a time of political optimism, when national pride meant public investment. Our health service is the envy of the world, and we can’t afford to let the Tories grind it down.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commerical Services Union. This post originally appeared on the PCS website.

6 Responses to “After 35 days waiting for a transplant, I know why our NHS is so special”

  1. James Kemp

    Fantastically well written and echo’s what disabled people have been shouting out for years only to be ignored or vilified as we use the NHS statically the most. We spot the strain being put on the fantastic staff of the NHS, the creeping privatising and outsourcing. That leads to a lesser service than we received under the NHS. But people don’t want to listen until something happens to them, or a family member that shakes them out of the comfort of denile.

    Before I was disabled I worked for years for a huge private hospital group and saw the mistakes and cost cutting to squeeze an extra penny out of everything and if that is what the Tories think is better than the NHS they need psychiatric services not medical.

  2. DaveC

    As one who has recently undergone a kidney transplant, I can only echo the sentiments that Mark Serwotka mentions. The staff, Doctors, Nurses, Porters, Cleaners, Ward staff etc were absolutely brilliant and I felt I was being well looked after before, during and after the operation. This is the NHS at its best and long may it continue

  3. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    As a fellow Aberdare boy I wish Mark all the best in getting a heart transplant. There are so many unrecognised staff in the NHS who don’t receive enough praise. I am also very grateful for the Rumanian and Greek doctors that performed my own transplants some years ago (kidney and pancreas).

  4. Amelia

    I am disabled and faced horrendous treatment on the NHS when I unfortunately required help, I never once criticised staff individually but still every time I tried to talk about what I faced I was shouted at, told I hate the NHS, that I want to copy the US… I’ve seen the same thing happen to NHS staff whistleblowers. At this point it seems protecting “our NHS” from any and all criticism (that is not crouched in “don’t get me wrong, I love the NHS”) is more important than the wellbeing of both the patients and the staff and the functioning of the healthcare system. I have since moved elsewhere in Europe to my husband’s country where the PUBLIC healthcare system (health insurance and private doctors are not a common thing here either), though it has flaws as everywhere does, functions as a healthcare system much better. If you want to change the pressures the NHS is under then it needs to become socially acceptable to talk about the NHS without referring to it as the “envy of the world” constantly or being accused of hating it and the staff working for it.

  5. Maria Brenton

    The NHS has saved my life twice. I use its services regularly. I am very impressed with Mark’s observations above and wish him a healthy new heart soon. I am angry that Jeremy Hunt was re-appointed to the DoH – the Tories appear to see it as their first duty to demoralise the professionals and their second duty to starve the support services of resources. However, I do think we all need to take a hard and sensible look at the funding of the NHS – so much of the pressure on it derives from cuts in funding elsewhere, such as in social care, the Independent Living Fund, etc and from conditions which damage health such as poor housing or poverty wages. I also think that rational plans for the centralisation of key specialist skills (such as a stroke unit or a heart transplant unit), which can only be achieved through closing down some hospitals or hospital depts, should not receive automatic kneejerk opposition from local people and their MPs. We all need educating about how health resources can be deployed best and the UK needs to examine its health priorities and get them right.

  6. Samuel Hooper

    Playing the “I’m on the waiting list for a heart transplant” card to drum up more uncritical support for Our Blessed NHS isn’t big or clever or brave, it is preaching to the choir and taking the path of least resistance.

    If the NHS really was a wonder of the modern world, why is the NHS model replicated by precisely zero other developed countries?

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