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The NHS at its best

Una Adderley reflects on her recent experience of the death of an old friend and the impressive way in which the NHS responded. It is easy to criticise the failings of the health service, but her story highlights that high-quality care is available when it is needed …

A few weeks ago, my old friend died quite unexpectedly. He was approaching 80 and the end came relatively swiftly with little warning, although he had been getting noticeably more frail. We had known each other all my life, and as he grew older, he had left the swirl of London to move closer to us and settle in rural Yorkshire in sheltered housing so that we could keep a close eye on him and support him in his twilight years.

One evening we received a phone call from the sheltered housing switchboard to say that he had fallen and needed help. He had been getting a little more wobbly on his pins and so we assumed it would be a case of getting him back on his feet, dusting him down and possibly bringing him back to our house for a night or two to make sure there was no lasting damage. We drove across - but when we arrived, we found him on the ground, vomiting and very distressed. We called out the GP, who gave him an anti-emetic and arranged to admit him to our local community hospital.

The ambulance turned up, we went with him to the hospital and we left him around 2 am, exhausted but calm and comfortable. We got home and fell into bed, relieved that he was in safe hands. At 7 am I got a phone call to say that he had unexpectedly died in his sleep. The post-mortem showed he had died from heart failure and that no active medical intervention would have made any significant difference.

It may seem strange, but I feel that this story shows the NHS working at its best. This is not a tale of flashing blue lights, heroic surgical interventions and the dramatics of ER, but of quiet, consistently good-quality community care. The local GP surgery had kept an eye on his various long-term health conditions and probably lengthened and improved his life. The sheltered housing set-up had enabled my friend to live independently but to summon help very quickly when needed.

The on-call GP understood the concept of good nursing care in a community hospital and patiently persuaded them that my friend would benefit more from an admission to their ward than being driven 30 miles to the nearest medical admissions unit, where he would probably have spent the night on a trolley. The ambulance crew were kind and polite, and took the route with the least amount of bends and bumps. The ward was clean and calm, and the staff treated my friend with gentleness and dignity. They had time to check him regularly and were as shocked as we were to find he had slipped away in his sleep. The on-call GP even rang me the next day to express his condolences and surprise at events.

I feel that we couldn't have asked for more and I am sure my friend would agree with me if he were here. The services were there when we needed them and everyone with whom we came into contact was not only highly professional but also kind and polite. We didn't have to wrestle with insurance policies, worry about how we were going to pay for the service we received or deal with difficult clinicians. Thank goodness for the NHS!