It retrospect it was probably one of those "You've Been Framed" style of moments - you know, the ones where you watch home video footage of people doing idiotic things and ask yourself "Are people really that daft?" Well, in my case, in late June 2013, yes.
It all started with having bought a petrol generator that was not known for its reliability. We've had it for a few years, and when we need to top up the big battery bank, we really need it to be working (see the entry on our off-grid power.) I had had to take the generator apart on several occasions, to replace the rope starter and to do various other bits of work. This time, it really would not start, Now on several occasions, with the way the starter rope is positioned on this generator, the rope has snapped back and hit my left hand, which was steadying the generator. It never did any damage, and was just unfortunate if a little uncomfortable. This time, the engine kicked back badly, missing my hand, but snapping a piece off the rope's handle - you know that T-piece of plastic. This left a jagged edge, but I thought nothing of it at the time. I tried again. This time, the rope kicked back, and the T-piece hit my thumb. Hard.
The adrenalin flowed quickly, and I could see it had cut a deep gash in my thumb. I ran inside and cleaned up the wound, and while it was sore it wasn't overwhelming. The damage was bad enough for Helen to make me go to see the nurse, which I did, and she dressed the wound. I couldn't move my thumb much, but that wasn't surprising. Now we get to the "You did what...?" part. I went straight back to the shed and tried to start the generator.
There are no prizes for guessing what happened next. Yes, the T-piece kicked back, and hit my thumb again, this time, if anything even harder. So I patched up my thumb again, and a week or so later, Helen and I drove down to Cumbria for one of Helen's shows. Here, I helped her set up her stand, carried loads of bags and boxes and generally did the usual thing, except that I had some bandages over my bleeding thumb. Tough or really daft - you decide.
By the time we got home, it was obvious that something was wrong. I was unable to move my thumb at all, and our doctor sent me straight to A&E at Raigmore, our nearest hospital, a 200 mile round trip away.
A&E were good and efficient, and soon I was sent around to the X-Ray department. A little later, and I was called across. This is where I thought "Oh dear, I've done something really stupid." Up to that point, I really thought I'd simply cut my thumb badly, perhaps injuring a tendon. The orthopaedic doctor looked at me and said "You've really smashed your thumb, haven't you?" and showed me the x-ray, of a piece of bone literally at right angles to where it should be. I was asked when I had done the damage, and she recommended that I have an operation under general anaesthetic to straighten the bone immediately - I would be classified as an emergency patient because of the time since the injury, as the bone was already becoming fused in place.
We were rather taken aback, and a little frightened at this. I was last in hospital at the age of 10 to have my appendix out and did not know what to expect. Helen was just frightened. We asked if I could go hone for the night and arrive the next morning, to which they agreed, provided I was back by 8am and provided I had nothing to eat or drink after 9.00pm. So we left home at around 5am the next morning, and Helen came with me to sign the forms etc, after a last conversation with the surgeon to make sure that my preferred blokish option - leaving it alone - was not really a good one. I was told I'd have my operation early.
Of course, I put on the dreaded hospital gown with the opening at the front rather than the back, but that was corrected, and a "Nil by mouth" sign stuck on my bed. I got chatting to the people on the ward. I was obviously scared of the prospect, and a kind tree surgeon, Mark, who had hurt himself rather badly, but was obviously a frequent visitor to the orthopaedic department, told me what to expect when I got to the operating theatres. It was very kind of him, and set my mind at rest. Various people came and went. Every hour or so nurse Glynis would come in to let me know when I might go in, but a series of road traffic accidents and other emergencies cropped up, taking precedence. After lunch the surgeon, Mr Beastall, came to let me know about some of the emergencies and why they were taking time. It was nerve-wracking waiting, but clearly the prioritisation important - my thumb hardly compared to some of the horrific injuries they deal with there, and to be honest, I even felt a little fraudulent, as they apologised for keeping me waiting. By the evening, I wasn't feeling too good, having had nothing to drink since the previous night. They were still hopeful of getting around to me, though, but around 8.00 pm, they were running out of time, and I was allowed to eat and drink. I polished off a jug of water and called for another. The waiting was made a little easier by being allowed to use mobile phones and my computer, which I thought they might not like on the wards.
The following morning, I was told it was my turn. I was asked to put on my slippers -nope - I don't do slippers - so in my robe I put my trainers on and the nurse walked me down to the operating theatres. I climbed into a bed and various people came, all wearing crocs shoes, asking me my name, date of birth and other questions to make sure who I was and why was there. Eventually, three of us were in beds, lined up for a grand prix style start. I looked around to see the systems that were apparently in use, but what struck me most was the look on the other patients' faces, and I wondered what they were in for, and what their hopes were for following their operations. Some looked resigned, some used to the process and some looked terrified. I'm not used to seeing people stripped of their façades like that, and it was a humbling experience. Eventually I was wheeled away, and I recall the breeze as I was pushed to the anaesthetic room, and noticing the surplus equipment outside some of the rooms. The doors closed on a tiny room, and through doors ahead of me I could see the actual theatre, but just for a second. The anaesthetist introduced himself again (I had met him the previous day on the ward) and asked some additional questions. A nurse on my left then asked me something and when next I looked, the anaesthetist had stuck a huge device into the vein in my right hand - I could see the thick needle bulging the vein, but had felt just a gentle prick when he did it. He then fastened a large syringe of a milky fluid to the device and told me I'd feel a cold sensation up my arm as it flowed, but that I'd be out in 20 seconds. Sure enough, it was an odd sensation, and I said "Oh, that feels most peculiar..." and I was out. What is surely the scariest part - the prelude and preparation in the operating theatres, was over, and was not nearly as bad as I feared, partly because Mark on the ward had told me what to expect and partly because of the friendliness and efficiency of the theatre teams.
I was next aware of someone who I think was the surgeon telling me the operation had gone well and that all was fine, then I was out again.
I next came too back in the ward, waking as they were wheeling me next to my bed. The nurse asked if I could get off the trolley and into my bed on my own, to which I said yes, got off the trolley, and the the world started going dark. I managed to say "I think I'm going to pass out." and did. I was aware of a lot activity around the bed, closing the curtains, something else attached to the port on my hand, my legs being raised and so on, and they wired me to various monitors.. It seems my blood pressure dropped off and they needed to sort that, but again, quick and focused work, and interestingly, I don't recall being afraid.
When next I woke, apart from a painful left hand, I felt much better and eventually I was told I could phone Helen to come to fetch me. They knew and understood the issues when you live 100 miles from the hospital, which made it easier. More waiting around eventually got me some pain medication and I was discharged.
The care I got was really wonderful. One old codger came into the ward on the first day. He had fallen and dislocated his shoulder which needed him to be heavily sedated to put it back. He was in discomfort obviously, but he just moaned about everything. At one point he said to me when he had gone to the loo that the least that could have been done for him was to give him a sling for his arm. Yet while he was saying this, the sling he took off earlier was near his pillow. He complained when the surgeons apologised for the delay, saying he couldn't see why he couldn't be fitted in, when the surgeon was explaining in some gorey detail the cases he was having to deal with - I felt he should have been resting, not keeping is updated on the ward. By contrast, one guy came in having just sharpened his chain saw, and cut through a plank. The chain saw went through his safety trousers and through his calf, stopping at the bone. His biggest problem was that there was no smoking on the wards. Another guy came in having impaled himself backwards on a fence post. He was in agony, and apologised to the ward in the morning for being unable to stop himself from grunting in pain during the night (The nurse gave him a real rollocking for not calling her for pain relief!) Shimon, originally from Israel, was a old hand at orthopaedic surgery, and was so laid back, I thought at first he was a visitor rather than a patient!
So, what had they done? Well, they must have used some serious leverage to force the twisted bone back into position. They then fired two wires up either side of the bone. Oh okay. if you really want to see it - here it is a couple of weeks later when I got the dressing removed and a plaster cast put on. They even asked me my choice of colour for the cast. I chose purple.
After several weeks in plaster, Back I went to have the wires removed. I was not looking forward to that at all, but as it happened, the surgeon who did my operation, Mr Beastall, happened to be passing and took over the job. He used a large pair of sterile pliers to grasp the wire, the assistant who was going to do the job held some gauze over my thumb and he steadily pulled the wire out. Next the other and I'd really felt nothing. Some blood oozed out of the holes for a while, and that was that. Another wrapping and I was away. Further NHS procedures kicked off and I got a call from our local physio to come in for treatment.
I can't believe my experience was anything special - I think the NHS delivers this level of care and attention every single day. I cannot praise their service highly enough. I think some people have an odd expectation from hospital. Some seem to think it should be more like a hotel visit. The one thing you must accept is you have to be a patient patient - you spend a lot of time waiting. I do not think this is because of bad processes, or lack of care. It's just the sheer scale of the health service and the number of people being attended to in hospital. And if there's something wrong enough with you to merit a trip to hospital, what is a bit of time in relation to your health?
A final anecdote to give an idea of how attentive NHS staff are. At a check-up a few weeks after the operation, when I was in to have the cast replaced, I went to the outpatient clinic to hand in my treatment card. The nurse looked up before I handed in my card and said "Oh, hello Mr Lockhart - you were here a couple of weeks back, weren't you?" The clinic was heaving with people, yet somehow her sense of service to people extended to remembering them in this way. Just wonderful.
It beats me how politicians can imagine being so destructive when they talk down the NHS, or worse, when they plan its demise, no doubt for hoped-for financial gain from subsequent private interests. Shame on them. As Peter Ustinov said about the UN, but it applies to the NHS too, so I'll paraphrase him - "If the NHS did not exist, people would think it would be an impossible dream. Yet because it does exist, people often abuse it. That is human nature" But the positive side of human nature can also be seen in the care from health service staff, a much more uplifting aspect than the naysayers and the small minded.