Friday, November 4, 2011

Handle With Care: "I'm American."

"I hope you don't mind, but I'm just gonna have to get naked in front of you now," I announced to John's mom, as I assessed the fact that I needed to change into the hospital gown as quickly as possible, after my surgeon swung by my bed and said that they were ready for me.  I was at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, Surrey, for my first operation under general anesthetic at a NHS hospital.  Petrified didn't even begin to describe how I was feeling.

I've had two similar operations in the US at a private hospital in Washington, which cost me a mind-blowingly cool $10,000 two years ago as I had returned to America as an uninsured visitor, needing emergency surgery.  I was used to hospitals with lazy Susans and electric blankets.  Shiny floors and art on the walls.  So I wasn't sure how I'd fare in a state-funded, public hospital.  Call it prejudice.  I was ashamed to admit that I had somewhat bought into the anti-NHS hype at some of my frustrating, low points.  Luckily, my US surgeon was able to refer me to his best friend, who happened to be an English maxillofacial surgeon practicing at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, which is how I found myself pulling on highly unflattering anti-embolism stockings on Wednesday afternoon, preparing for the OR.

"Got your sexy socks on?" asked the nurse who was helping me get ready.  "Yup," I replied, showing her the green tights.  "Okay, well, just make yourself comfortable in your bed and we'll wheel you in," she said.  I was a little confused.  They were actually going to wheel me into the operating room?  This was new.  In the States, you get up and walk into the operating room and literally lie down on the table, waiting for the anesthesiologist to work his magic.  "Have you never had a procedure here?" she asked.  "Not in this country," I replied.  "Ooh, yes, you're American!  I LOVE your accent!  Why are you even HERE?" she gushed.  Her friendly chatter helped me feel more at ease and as soon as I hit the prep room, where the anesthesiologist (or anaesthetist, for you Brits) who had consulted me before the op, was waiting.  A team of nurses were by his side - all friendly, smiling, and professional.  It was at that point that I finally let go of my anxiety and put my trust in the men in the green scrubs.  They knew what they were doing.  "I promised you something good to help you relax," said the anesthesiologist kindly, pressing drugs into my IV.

When I came around, after the operation, I remember crying.  I don't know why it happened because I wasn't even upset.  But the nurse handed me some tissues and comforted me.  I wanted to tell him that he reminded me of someone from TV, but I couldn't get the words out.  He asked me about my pain levels and fed painkillers into my IV accordingly.  I specifically asked not to be on morphine before as it made me sick after my previous two surgeries, so I was glad that the anesthesiologist had listened to my concerns.  I was also glad that I had been able to speak to him before the operation and he asked, on more than one occasion, about how I was feeling, what I was afraid of or nervous about.  My surgeon came around shortly after while I was coming around, telling me that the surgery had gone very well and that he'd see me in two weeks.

I had been previously told that if I needed to stay overnight, I'd be in a ward with a few other beds, rather than a private room, which I was slightly anxious about, but okay with.  However, I was given oxygen for quite a while after the operation and wheeled into a private room with my own bathroom, while a very nice nurse came by and kindly brushed my hair from my face while saying, "Keep the oxygen on, my darling, it'll just help brush the cobwebs away."  John's mom came in and quietly read in the corner, staying with me for a few hours afterward, until the same, lovely nurse came in and asked how I was feeling and if I'd like to stay overnight.  I told her I would like to if it was all right with her.  I felt really bad about taking away beds from other people if they needed it more.  I kept expecting them to wheel me back to the bay, but I was able to stay in the room on my own for the rest of the evening, which was perfect.

The junior nurse who had checked me in at the start came in and asked if I wanted some hot food.  I was a bit incredulous at the thought of eating after having had my jaw/sinus operated on, but decided to try anyway.  The menu was immense - she rattled off a selection of probably twenty or so choices and I settled for some swede mash.  "The pasta is quite soft too," she said. "Shall I put some on a plate and you can just try some?"  I ended up eating it all.  And it might have been the drugs I was on, but it was absolutely delicious.

Soon after, I fell asleep and Alison returned to London, with plans to pick me up when I was discharged the next day.  The night nurses came in quietly in intervals to check my blood pressure and offer me painkillers, food, and anything else I wanted.  They were friendly, patient, and understanding - unlike the brusque, non-communicative night team I encountered in the US.

So how would I rate my first overnight stay and surgical experience at a British NHS hospital?  I have to say that it was truly amazing.  I'm so grateful to the kindness, compassion, and thoughtfulness I was shown during my stay there.  I'm thankful for the expertise of the doctors and nurses who treated me and who looked after me in the hours following the operation.

I know that the Royal Surrey is an exception and that not all NHS hospitals across the UK are up to its standards.  I've seen friends receive some rather appalling treatment in London hospitals, for example.  I also know that I'm an exception, having had a special referral to attend this specific hospital in Surrey.  But I must say, after having paid no costs towards the hospital after my surgery (except for the antibiotics and painkillers I took home, which will total just over £14), I'm glad to pay my UK taxes every month and I'm glad to make the NHS contribution that comes out of my paycheck - if it means I can receive treatment of that caliber.


  1. So glad to hear you're recovering well! And good to know that NHS hospitals can provide such quality service. I found the same thing when I went to the Surgery in Uganda - I was incredibly apprehensive, but found the service and compassion toe be excellent. :)

  2. Ah, how nice to hear that! I was (and still am) away from the UK when all that anti-NHS hype hit the states and I have to say I felt more than a little defensive. Of course it could be better and having to wait a long time in Casualty (what you guys call ER?) can be frustrating. But I've always had great service and it strikes me as being a good, fair system that simply needs to be managed properly.

    Here in Brazil I am dreading having a problem as I can't afford health insurance and will be financially hammered if I have to visit a hospital...

    Get well soon!

  3. Hi Lizzie, thanks for the comment! Glad to know that you had such a positive experience in Uganda.

    And thanks for reading my blog, Tom, and for your well wishes. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say it's a "good, fair system that simply needs to be managed properly." I have my fingers crossed that you will remain in good health for the duration of your stay in Brazil and don't need any medical attention!

  4. Very nicely written. I'm glad it was a good experience.

  5. Thanks, Caissa! I'm grateful that it went well too.


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