The following is the recollection of a woman in middle age reflecting on her father’s illness and death some years earlier. I’ve heard many people from the UK who express similar gratitude for the NHS.
Memory is not my strong point. I say that because, when someone is dying, memory can get fuzzy anyway and I will remember some things about my Dad’s dying and death clearly and some things less so.
I guess Dad’s illness became most obvious about a year before he died. I can’t remember whether I knew it was Myelodysplasia – MDS (a form of leukemia in which the bone marrow does not function normally and produces insufficient number of normal blood cells ). What I do remember is that he started to feel tired and listless and started to have regular blood transfusions, at first once a month, then once every two weeks and finally weekly (and it could have even been more often). This trek to the hospital for the transfusions was quite a burden for him and for Mum. I was living 200 miles away at the time so heard about it in our weekly phone calls. Mum would tell me how he was doing. It seemed at first that everything was under control and there was nothing really to worry about. Life went on.
I think the first time I began to realize that something was really wrong was when I went home for a visit and saw the weight Dad was losing and how his mood was really affected by the illness. He was irritable, not his usual cheerful self. Someone had come to visit, a neighbor who, if I remember right, was also going through some illness himself. I remember Dad only being able to tolerate a very few minutes of the social interaction before he had to give his apologies and go back to bed because he was so tired. I think this was a shock to me. This had to be about 6 months in.
I tried to visit more often of course, but a life in another city and a busy job kept me from doing so. I would hear in more regular phone calls with Mum about Dad’s slow deterioration. I marvel at the fact that the intense regime of transfusions and the treatments associated with them were free to Dad – a function of the British National Health Service (NHS). Over their years of working Mum and Dad had contributed their National Insurance contributions and now the NHS was doing what is was supposed to do – support them in their hour of need. Unlike here in the US, my parents never had a moment of worry about having to pay for the treatment – a true blessing at a time when any extra worry would have been overwhelming.
I learned later that Mum really knew what was happening, despite downplaying the seriousness to us (adult) children. I also learned later from her that she had tried to talk to Dad about the inevitable end point that she knew was coming – his imminent death, but, either because of his fear or discomfort for both of them in talking about such a taboo subject, she couldn’t get him to talk to her until a few days before his death and then only briefly. My heart aches for the lack of this conversation, and I tear up now imagining what more discussions could have meant to them both.
Over the months, I think I had been hearing the stress in Mum’s voice and came to see them more often. However, she never asked for help – a Northern British trait if ever there was one. The first time she did tell me she needed me to come was on the day of the General Election in May of 1997. I will never forget that day. I was volunteering for the Labour Party that day, taking numbers at the polling station. Mum and I talked and she finally told me that she feared the worst – would I come? I, of course, said yes. I stayed up to watch Michael Portillo lose his seat and got on the earliest train home the next morning.
When I arrived at home, I remember the stress, grief and fear that I encountered in Mum. I also remember seeing Dad, in bed, so tired, exhausted and drained. And thin, stick thin. A shock to me after not seeing him for a few weeks. That afternoon, the doctor came (yes, a home visit – a rarity these days). Dad had also been tended to by the District Nurse (as a side note, my recollection was that he had been looked after by Macmillan Nurses – an amazing free service via the Macmillan Cancer Support charity in the UK. In later conversations with Mum for this article, she reminded me that although they had applied for this help, everything happened so fast in those last days that Dad died before she got their help). All of us, the doctor, the nurse, myself and Mum sat outside in the garden on the afternoon of 2nd May. I remember that scene so very clearly. I remember the doctor telling us about Dad’s condition and how he had deteriorated. I remember asking the doctor directly “How long does he have? Days? Weeks? Months?” I remember the doctor telling us that we should prepare for Dad’s death in the next hours and days. It’s hard to convey to those who haven’t experienced this kind of interaction what a profoundly awful, sad and gut-wrenching feeling is engendered by this information. I think that’s why I remember it so vividly still today, 17 years later. There is something good about knowing this though, of course. It gave us just a little time to prepare.
So, with that time, Mum and I contacted my brother and sister who made plans to come straight away. That night I told Mum I would spend the night with Dad to give her some rest. In hindsight I don’t really know whether I regret that decision or not. It was probably one of the most traumatic and harrowing times of my life. I won’t go into details here but suffice to say that Dad was hallucinating on morphine and coming in and out of rational thought. It was a powerful and devastating experience, for both of us.
On Saturday my sister made it in the morning. She spent some time with Dad and then Mum and us girls made it through the day. Dad was in bed, still gravely ill but hanging on. What I now believe is that he hung on determinedly and staved off death until my brother made it home in the late afternoon. What an amazing gift he gave us for us all to be together at this profound moment. All of us were downstairs a couple of hours after he arrived and I heard a noise upstairs. Mum and I went to check on Dad and sat with him a while. Then he died. Once more, it’s hard to convey the gravity of this experience. I was so glad we were with him to hold his hand and let him know that he was loved as he journeyed out of this world. Once his spirit was gone and his body remained, we all as a family spent time with him, in his own bed, sitting with him, drinking whiskey and sharing tears and memories. The doctor and funeral directors came later that night and he was truly gone, spiritually and physically. To be honest much of these activities are a blur to me now.
I suppose the reason for putting all of this down on paper is partly to remember that time and have a record so that it’s noted in this span of life when I can still recall some details. Another reason is to remark on my experience of how terminally ill people are supported and cared for in England. Mum will have her own experiences of the National Health Service treatment leading up to this final time. From what I remember it was supportive. My sister reminded me that it wasn’t all great and that sometimes Dad would be waiting on a trolley until he could get a place in a ward and that this experience made him determined to die at home. However, what I do clearly remember is the warmth, care, attention and dedication of the healthcare providers I encountered. And, what I also remember is that all of this amazing care was free at the point it was needed. No-one in this story had to have the additional stress of worrying about which treatments were covered by health insurance. No-one had to worry about co-pays or debt because of the treatment my Dad had to have. No-one had to have the additional stress of worrying about bankruptcy if things weren’t covered. I know the NHS has it’s problems – it did back then and it does now. But, even though problems exist, the fundamental principles of the NHS: that it meet the needs of everyone; that it be free at the point of delivery; that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay substantially helped my family to experience leukemia diagnosis, treatment and ultimately death in the best and least stressful way possible. I hope you’re listening America.