Junior doctors protesting at Whitehall in London last month. REUTERS PIC

A FRIEND of mine, looking after her ailing husband, was recently dealt with debilitating bouts of diarrhoea, accompanied by vomiting that rendered her almost helpless.

In the current equally debilitating state of British hospitals and healthcare, worn down under the weight of increasing cases of winter flu and emergencies, compounded by spending cuts in the British National Health Service (NHS) and shortage of staff, it was understandably worrying that she would just end up on a stretcher along the corridors of the hospital before getting treatment. That is a common image that we see now as hospitals try to cope with cuts and the increasing number of patients that usually happens during winter.

However, I was pleasantly surprised and grateful that this friend of mine, after a quick call to the ambulance service, was immediately seen to and is now warded in a room all to herself. From her symptoms, she could well be the latest victim of the notorious norovirus bug that has affected a lot of people this winter and seen the banning of visitors to wards.

Patients with other emergency cases had not been as lucky. Last month, a young student who was down with high fever for several days had taken a taxi in the early hours of the morning to the Accident and Emergency Department (A&E) of a hospital nearby, only to be told to wait for five hours before he could be seen. He was turned away several times before because his case was not deemed that serious to warrant any attention by the doctors. Even after a call to his General Practitioner’s surgery, he was told that he needed to wait for an appointment.

Such cases, of long waits and being turned back with advice to just take paracetamol, are not uncommon now. Thousands of patients have had their surgery postponed; accident and emergency centres, some of which had been closed down, are themselves close to breakdown. Those who do turn up at the hospitals are lined up on trolleys because there are just not enough beds. Some “lucky” ones were just left in the ambulance, tended to by paramedics.

These are all happening as Britain’s National Health Service reaches its 70th year this year.

Britain’s Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has been moved to apologise to patients after non-urgent operations were postponed and he had admitted that the health service is facing real issues. The chaos faced by the state-funded health service has been reported as the worst since the 1990s.

As someone who hardly used the healthcare provided, I had enjoyed some of the most wonderful services that they had offered, when they could, before the government imposed what was considered “the fiercest financial squeeze” since 2010.

During my first pregnancy and the delivery of my firstborn, I had nothing but heaps of praises for the team that looked after my wellbeing — from the nurses who rejoiced in the wonderful news of the conception, to the midwife who encouraged me without a rise in her voice when I was going through labour. It was the same dedicated, albeit tired-looking, midwife who looked in on me in the middle of the night, to pat softly on my wrist to see if I was all right and apologised sympathetically as she had to take my temperature.

In the early 1980s, new mothers enjoyed at least five days stay at the ward, with free baby napkins and towels. After being sent home, the midwife continued with home visits daily and then the health visitor took over, visiting baby and new mum.

It wasn’t too bad, too, with the second child, who was born jaundiced, but a quick call to a doctor saw her within minutes at our doorstep.

Things slowly went on a slide for the NHS. When my youngest was born, a houseman who had not slept for a few days because of a shortage of doctors, admitted to injuring the baby’s scalp as she attempted sleepily to attach a monitor to his head. That was the beginning of the slide that I personally witnessed. Most healthcare workers looked tired and harassed and mostly demoralised by the number of hours they have had to put in with the pay that wasn’t helping.

There has been a worrying report about the increasing number of nurses leaving the profession while recruitment is falling.

Dropping in at the surgery, which is what a doctor’s clinic is known as here, is no longer encouraged. For non-emergency cases, an appointment which could stretch to two weeks before you get to see the doctor is the practice. Mums with new babies are sent home after one day if they are considered well enough to do so.

When my youngest had a stomach complaint that saw him almost rolling on the floor with pain, we thought that was emergency enough that would warrant a visit to the A&E at a hospital nearby. Alas, the hospital has its A&E department closed down and no ambulance could be spared to take my child to another hospital. So, we took a taxi.

What we are witnessing now is a grim picture of the ailing health service. A recent report showed that the number of patients leaving Britain and flying overseas for medical treatment had reached a record high. This would be good news for Malaysia’s Health Travel Council, which has had good testimonials as the best destination for medical treatment.

However, for those who could not afford to travel to get their treatment, the ray of light for now seemed to be the hope that when and if Britain leaves the European Union, the move would free up an extra £350 million (RM1.9 billion) for healthcare. And even then, it would need much more to rebuild the morale of the staff to provide the service that used to be a vocation and a passion.

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