The NHS at 70: A patient's view

Mike Wakely

Mike Wakely, 76, has had a heart condition since the age of nine, when rheumatic fever damaged his heart valve. He recalls the NHS in its early days and now.

At the age of nine I spent six weeks in the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital in Taplow, Berkshire – so called because it was originally built by the Canadian Red Cross, and then later donated to the nation, and to the NHS once it was formed. At the time I did not know anything about the newly created NHS.

I have a clear memory of the ward in a pretty bare and basic ground floor room, with about 20 beds containing small (and not always friendly) boys like me, and I remember being well looked after by the nurses and a few serious (and doubtlessly capable) doctors. 

If I had thought about what care I was getting and what it cost, I would have been amazed. At the time I took it for granted.

I am glad I didn’t need an operation then, because I think at the time my chances of surviving heart surgery would have only been about one in two. 

Family photographs of Mike Wakely and his brother as children

Family photographs of Mike and his brother Patrick as children

Hospital experiences through the years

Whilst I was at school I wasn’t allowed to do sport or the cadet force. While everyone else was playing sport, I climbed trees and did what I wanted. I had annual checks on my heart until I was 18. After school I had an active life. I was in missionary service in India, Nepal and Pakistan. 

Then in about 2009 I began to experience periods of breathlessness, accompanied by pain in my arms when I walked or ran. I brushed it off as a symptom of increasing age, but it grew worse and friends recommended I have it checked out. My doctor ordered immediate further tests.

There were moments of pain, sleeplessness and uncertainty about the future, but the experience was rich and positive

I went for an angiogram (what an amazing experience!) and watched my arteries on the screen, as blood coursed feely through them to keep me alive. The good news was they were clean and healthy. The bad news was that this meant my old problem had resurfaced – I had a faulty aortic heart valve. It needed to be replaced with a valve that worked. That meant open heart surgery.

My next hospital experience was in a superbly equipped and comfortable ward at Kings College Hospital, London, for heart valve replacement surgery in 2011.

The outstanding memory is still of the extraordinary care given to us patients by the team of nurses from many different countries working long 12-hour shifts and seemingly never tiring to meet the demands and needs of the patients. You could feel the professionalism of everyone around you. There were moments of pain, sleeplessness and uncertainty about the future, but the experience was rich and positive.

Family photographs of Mike Wakely and his brother as children

Family photographs of Mike and his brother Patrick as children

Praise for the staff and the service 

During my week in hospital it was the NHS nurses from many different countries, who became my heroines. In my present work in schools for the poor in Pakistan I promote nursing as the best job in the world.

I don’t take it for granted because I have seen what it is like in other countries. I feel immensely fortunate to have the NHS

The cardiac rehab programme afterwards was terrific.  It gave me two lessons that changed my life, to exercise and eat healthily. Now I carry a pedometer and I go for a walk every day.

I also deeply value the advice and service rendered by the British Heart Foundation whose Heart Matters magazine is a regular mine of information and inspiration.

My experience of the NHS has always been incredibly impressive, although I know that is not everyone’s experience.

For most of us the NHS has been with us throughout our lives. People take it for granted. I think that is a tragedy. I don’t take it for granted because I have seen what it is like in other countries, having worked as a missionary and for the charity I set up, especially in Pakistan. I feel immensely fortunate to have the NHS.

NHS care has enabled me to live a life of activity and fulfilment, thanks to a capable team of outstanding and caring professionals. May we never take them for granted."

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