Pam Duncan-Glancy: Happy Birthday NHS, thank you, and here’s to many more

Pam Duncan-Glancy, Labour’s candidate in Glasgow North, writes for the Red Robin on what the NHS means to her.

‘It’ll take 6 months, but when she leaves she will be able to take a few steps’.

I’ll never forget those words.  Professor Woo was a consultant in Rheumatology, specialising in Juvenile Arthritis, which I’d had since I was 18 months old.  It was 1994, I was 13, we were in a central London hospital and my mum, dad and I were listening carefully to what the Doctors could do to help me.  At 13 I’d already had more than my fair share of our wonderful NHS, and was about to get a lot more. Now 36, I had no idea then that the experience of the 13 year old me would not only change my body forever, but my mind too.  It was possibly one of the most defining times in my life.

From a very young age, all my joints were badly damaged by Juvenile Chronic Arthritis (that’s what we call Arthritis as we know it in older people, but when kids get it).  I was in and of hospital. For a lot of years I’m pretty sure my mum and dad felt like they’d slept on more fold down beds in children’s wards than they had beds in their own home!

My Arthritis was pretty aggressive.  By the age of five I was in a wheelchair.  By my tenth birthday I couldn’t stand up to get out of my chair and my arms were so stiff and stuck that I couldn’t lift a cup to my mouth.  My mum, dad, sister and friends helped me eat and drink, get ready, washed, and carried me – from my chair to my bed, to the toilet, to the couch, to a seat in restaurants and so on – we quickly became a family used to ‘work arounds’ in a society not quite ready for me.

Growing up in a small village in the North of Scotland, my own Doctors hadn’t seen many kids like me.  That’s why they referred me to someone in London. Professor Woo was true to her words. I was in hospital for six months, and I could walk short distances when I left.  Enough to be able to wobble around my house, with a bit of help from the walls and furniture! Crucially, this meant that I could stand from my wheelchair and get to the next nearest chair/bed toilet, and I still can.  The little bit of tottering was a huge thing for us all, and took buckets of tears (from all of us), 12 anaesthetics, several scars and a lot of homesickness.

For six months I saw my mum and dad 3 times and my sister once.  Luckily my Uncle Jim (everyone’s got an Uncle Jim, but I tell you now, they’re not like mine) lived in Hatfield, outside London.  He visited me every day after work and my cousins kept me going in games and chat. The other patients, nurses, physios, domestic staff and doctors became like my family.  Ten years later, when I was studying my Masters in Health Psychology I went back to visit them and did a placement there for two weeks. I was extremely grateful to be able to give something back, and to see that they were still caring and loving for hundreds of other little girls and boys, just like they had me.  And now, working full time for the NHS, I am proud to put my heart and soul back into the institution that shaped mine.

When I came home from London my sister and friends from school made up a welcome-home dance to the Steps song; ‘Better Best Forgotten.’  I loved it but I never forgot it, the dance, nor my time away from them. I wouldn’t change those six months for the world. Not just because they helped me make the best of my body, but because in that (comparatively) short time I saw the best of our world, met the strongest people and learned first-hand that when we work together, we achieve more than we do alone.  It taught me to believe in people. Those six months, and the two-week stays twice a year for the subsequent eight years were so important in defining the woman I am now. That lived experience of a system delivered without boundaries, that is ready to improve the lives of millions and that is available to all, regardless of background, or where you’re born became a seminal part of my character, and, my politics.   

That’s why I’m Labour.  I want for others what I had.  A chance to improve their life because they can access the best of the best.  I’ve had more than my fair share of support from our wonderful NHS and I am forever grateful.  I will cherish it with all my heart and I will work endlessly to remind everyone why they should too.  It not just an institution, it is the epitome of revolutionary thinking and a shining example of collective effort.  It is Labours greatest ever achievement. The NHS celebrates its 70th birthday this week but we can never take it for granted.  It is the responsibility of all of us to check on it’s vital statistics because in the wrong hands it can flat line.

Love it.  Hold it dear.  Remind everyone why we do.  And my goodness fight for it like our life depends on it, because, it does.

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