I was having a fairly standard day, to begin with. I was at work and had just finished my lunch. I got up out of my seat, chatted with a work colleague for a few minutes, wandered back into the classroom, began writing something down and BAM: I felt a sudden, excruciating pain in the left side of my back, shooting from my shoulder blade down to below my ribcage and extending into my side and chest. It came from nowhere; I'd made no sudden movements, so I couldn't see how I might have pulled a muscle. I had no explanation for the pain. Then, I realised, as the pain began to steadily - and quickly - worsen, that I couldn't breathe properly. Each time I tried to take a breath in, the pain would stop me from inhaling properly.
Working with children meant that I was very keenly aware not to worry them that anything might be wrong. So, I disguised my gulps for air as yawns and various other daily occurrences, and I tried to talk in very fast sentences, using the little breath I had to say whatever I needed to. Thankfully, a colleague quickly realised something was wrong and I darted out of the room to try to sort myself out.
I tried calling my GP's surgery, but just got an answerphone message, saying that they were closed for lunch (more on that later). Then, following a garbled phone call to my Mum (not because she's a health care professional, but because by this point, I was panicking and my eyes were on the verge of leakage), I rang NHS Direct. After explaining my symptoms - and doing that ever so British thing of talking said symptoms down and apologising for time-wasting - I found myself sitting in the office at work, waiting for an ambulance.
Sadly, the paramedic did not sing this.
Which hurt almost as much as the original pain.
Less than twenty minutes later, a First Response car arrived, driven by a very lovely paramedic named Andy. Andy took all my obs and listened to me apologising for wasting his time (seriously, I am so British). He asked how my general health had been recently, so I told him about my never-ending cold (you can watch my attempts to cure said cold here) and about the month of stress I've had. My heart rate seemed normal, my blood pressure was low (which is normal for me) and I didn't have a temperature. He decided to perform an ECG and that was when we suddenly discovered that the crushing pain and breathlessness almost evaporated completely when I leaned back or lay down.
"Great!" I thought. "I'll just spend the rest of my life leaning back and I'll be dandy!"
Unfortunately, Andy the paramedic wasn't so thrilled about this discovery, as it turns out that this symptom can be indicative of either Pericarditis (an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart) or a Pulmonary Embolism.
Here's a little fact about me: Turns out that, no matter how stressful life has been over the last month and no matter how many trivial - and not-so-trivial - worries I may have about my current existence, I bloody love being alive.
I heard those two potential diagnoses and I won't lie; I started wondering whether my Mum would remember that I've always wanted Design For Life by the Manic Street Preachers played at the end of my funeral.
1. Yes, I know I am a drama queen.
2. To my fellow Whovians: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
Andy the paramedic decided to first of all phone my GP's surgery. It was now only five minutes before the end of their lunch hour. And, despite being told that he was a paramedic with a patient and that he needed to speak to someone, the receptionist still told Andy to call back after lunch.
Yes, I know he could have just driven me to hospital, but the point was that the hospital was a good forty five minutes away, whereas the surgery was less than fifteen. At that point, I took a break from mentally watching an Emma Tofi version of It's A Wonderful Life (quit judging me) and began an internal rant about the surgery (which quickly became an external rant, which Andy joined in with, once he'd put the phone down). And, given that you guys know how much I love a damn good rant, I will be repeating most of it, before this blog is finished. But first, on with the story...
Today, the role of my inner drama queen will be played by Ted Mosby.
Once five more precious minutes of doctor lunch break had passed, Andy called the surgery back and was put through to an actual GP. At this point, I want to say that the GP who dealt with my case was lovely and incredibly thorough and reassuring. He wasn't convinced that I needed immediate hospital treatment and suggested that I was taken home to lie down, before having an appointment at the surgery a couple of hours later.
As I lay in my bed that afternoon, I pondered many things. I worked out how much money I'd lost from January's pay packet, as a result of being taken ill. I cursed the fact that I had left my glasses in my car at work, and therefore couldn't watch the latest Dan & Phil video (priorities, guys...). But most importantly, I started to realise how tiny the problems in your life become, when your actual life itself is considered. You see, by this point, I no longer thought I was dying, but I was pretty sure something bad was going on. Every time I sat up to drink some water, the pain and the breathlessness would come rushing back and lying back down was the only way to get relief. That... Well, that didn't seem right.
And all I could think about was how much time I've spent, recently, worrying about things I can't change.
I can't suddenly have loads of cash. But I can save as much money as I can afford to, and work harder on my blogging and YouTube videos, in the hope of securing additional income.
I can't magically have a husband and kids. But I can put myself out there and remind myself that my life can be full without them, if it comes down to that.
I can't make people treat me with honesty, respect and consideration. But I can know when they're not doing so and walk away with my head held high.
I can't eradicate all stress from my life. But I can change the way I deal with it.
I made a vow, right there and then, to stop sweating the small stuff quite as much as I have been. It's a cliche, but life is fragile and it can be short, so why waste it on negativity, regret and pointless drama?!
Although, she probably doesn't need it, either.
Fast forward a couple of hours and I was at the surgery, being checked over by my GP (who, I must stress again, was great - I am stressing this, because I'm gonna go on a rant about the surgery later, so...stay tuned).
I went incredibly light-headed at one point and was quickly taken to lie down in a side-room. There, I was injected with blood-thinners, directly into my stomach (exactly as pleasant as it sounds), just in case I did have a P.E (clot). An appointment was made for me to go to hospital for further tests, first thing the following morning.
At the hospital next day, after chest x-rays, blood tests (AAAAAAAAAAARGH, I HATE THOSE SO MUCH) and another ECG, it was with enormous relief that each of the big, nasty things (Pulmonary Embolism, Pericarditis, Pneumonia and other things beginning with P) were all ruled out.
A fantastic Acute GP at the hospital reassured me that whilst "some people are puzzles, and some puzzles don't ever get solved" (meaning I was a bit of a medical enigma, but I rather liked it as a general musing on humanity), he was fairly sure that I had somehow twisted a nerve somewhere in my chest, and that I was free to go home (although he also pointed out that my symptoms could be indicative of Shingles and that I should look out for a rash developing in the coming days). Cue me apologising yet again for "wasting precious NHS time," only to be told that I was doing no such thing.
And at this point in the proceedings, I would like to write something of a love letter...
If I was living in America, just having the response car called out to me would have cost a minimum of $200. Add on the tests and treatments I had and you're left with one pretty hefty total bill, which could easily run into thousands. Yet, here in the UK, the only things Mum and I paid for were hospital parking and a couple of drinks and slices of cake, whilst we were waiting for the results of all my tests. Every single one of those tests, every minute I spent with a nurse (shout-out to the amazing Dawn) or doctor was completely free.
As. It. Should. Be.
We are so lucky to have free health care in this country. We are so incredibly fortunate to know that we can afford to be taken ill. As Aneurin Bevan, founding father of the NHS once put it: "No society can legitimately call itself civilised, if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means."
And every single member of NHS staff I met was incredible. From the paramedic who took the time to carry my handbag from the car to my front door, to the nurse who had given up the previous thirty Christmases, in order to help the sick. From the GP who took the time to reassure me on Thursday evening, to the Acute GP who somehow managed to make me laugh and be utterly lovely when I was in pain on Friday morning. Nobody let the side down. They were all amazing people, doing amazing jobs in difficult circumstances.
Because, mark my words, the NHS is in crisis.
I heard stories of shifts ending at 8, yet staff not being able to go home until 11. I was told tales of staff shortages, budget cuts and the huge worry of privatisation. Staff who'd worked in the NHS their entire adult lives told me, with their faces pale, that it was changing beyond recognition. That it was changing for the worse.
And we cannot accept that. To quote Nye Bevan again, the NHS "will last long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it."
We have to be those folk. We have to fight for our NHS, with every scrap of energy we can muster. Because there can be nobody reading this in the UK, who doesn't know someone whose life has been saved by our National Health Service. There can be nobody reading this in the UK who can't think of times when they themselves have received treatment at a GP's surgery or a hospital, which they have not had to pay a penny for. Imagine allowing an illness to go untreated, because you're frightened about how much it'll cost, or that your insurance won't cover it. Health care that is free at the point of delivery should be a right, not a privilege.
I am passionately proud of our NHS. It has saved the lives of many of my loved ones. It has eased the final days of others. It has been there for me, not just this week, but many times over the years. And that is why I will fight for it. It is also why I become so angry when I don't feel it's living up to its promise of proper patient care...
THE RANT IS COMING.
Doctors work hard. They deserve breaks. But the paramedic who attended to me on Thursday was shocked that my surgery turned him away because there were "five minutes left of lunch break." I, on the other hand, was not.
Sadly, my surgery, Wadebridge & Camel Estuary Practice - a place I've been registered with since I was 16 years old and somewhere I associate with a very high quality of care - has changed, recently. They have implemented a "call back" service, meaning you can no longer either phone up and get an appointment, or go online and book one in advance. Instead, you have to ring the surgery, speak to a receptionist about your personal medical issues and wait for a GP to call you back as and when they see fit. This call may come half an hour later. It may come several hours later. And even if/when the GP phones you back, they may very well decide not to see you at all.
How is that providing proper patient care? When my mother was hugely worried that her knee had become swollen and painful to walk on earlier this year, she rang the surgery. She was not called back for almost six hours and, when she did get a call, she was not invited to the surgery so that anyone could actually see her swollen knee. She was just told "I'll refer you for an x-ray." No reassurance. No real human interaction. Mum is lucky; she does not live alone and is not elderly. But what if she was? What if going to see the doctor would have been the only human contact she had all day, and now, thanks to this ludicrous system, she would have seen nobody at all? What about people who are hard of hearing and find it easier to speak to someone face to face? What about shift workers like myself, who may phone up in the morning, because they're working in the afternoon, only to not receive a call back from a doctor until several hours later, when they're not around to take it?! It would appear that the system is supposed to weed out "time-wasters" and free up doctors who can then see more needy patients, but it's flawed, because even the paramedic who treated me, admitted that he wouldn't want to have to call the surgery for himself anymore, because their system was so off-putting. I have seen my family members and friends struggle with viruses, pains and other ailments in the months since this system was put in place, because they don't want to have to explain their problems to a receptionist and then potentially wait for the rest of the day for a call-back that may never lead to them actually getting to see a doctor. Frankly, that is not patient care and it's not good enough.
Why yes, I HAVE been binge-watching How I Met Your Mother, recently...
And so, I came to realise that as well as my health scare putting my own problems into perspective, it also gave me a fresh perspective on our NHS system, too. It needs - deserves - better funding, protective measures for staff working a ridiculous number of hours a week, development of treatment centres in rural areas and a higher number of staff entering the system, to reduce the pressure on those already working within it. And we - you, me and everyone around us who uses the NHS and relies on that free health care - need to stand up for it. Demand that positive changes are made for patients and staff. Demand that we never, ever lose it.
As for me, I'm on the mend, now. I was sent home with a prescription for seriously strong painkillers, which I never actually picked up, because I'm a bad ass with a high pain threshold, clearly. I'm determined to remember those few minutes of terror that I felt, when I thought something dreadful was wrong, so that the next time I get upset about some trivial problem, or some nastiness directed at me on social media, I am able to recognise it for the tiny, insignificant thing it truly is and just get on with the far more important business of actually living my life and making it the best it can possibly be.
It's funny how it takes these things to put life into perspective, sometimes. Now that I see things much more clearly, I am making a promise to myself to keep my eyes wide open from now on.
Life is short. Every moment we have should be cherished. Let go of the negativity, walk away from the hate and squeeze every last moment of brilliance out of your existence.
And fight for the health care system that allows you to live at all.