In the scheme of things, fixing a teenager’s teeth is insignificant, some might even say indulgent. However, this tiny cog in the great big wheel has shown my family our health service at its very best.
When my daughter, Lizzie, first set foot in the orthodontic department four years ago, we never thought that one day I would be sitting in the waiting room in a face-mask whilst she saw the dentist alone. Yet throughout the pandemic, whenever it has been safe to do so, we’ve attended appointments to finalise the removal of her brace.
Never, even when I gave birth to Lizzie there in 2005, have I appreciated our local hospital as much. I remember the furore when the acute stroke unit closed last year.
At one point, there were fears that we might lose our local hospital altogether and patients and visitors would be forced to travel to Sheffield, Wakefield, Doncaster or Rotherham.
These fears have been allayed, evidenced by the building of a new £3.5m Children’s Emergency Department, but the prospect of losing ‘‘the General’’ shook the town. Whatever else Health Secretary Matt Hancock has got wrong, he’s certainly done one thing right – keeping local hospitals open for local people.
No doubt some complex NHS accounting spreadsheet has calculated the cost-savings. However, for those of us who use hospitals, it goes far beyond economics. My parents, for example, who are in their seventies. If dad had to travel to Sheffield for his regular appointments for various medical conditions, the stress would be difficult for him to cope with.
And certainly at Barnsley Hospital, there is a personal touch that can’t be quantified. Such as the fact that Lizzie’s sign-off appointment clashed with a sudden Zoom meeting I needed to attend for work.
I have the receptionist’s direct line so I called her to see if there was any flexibility. Unflappable, she simply told us to come in an hour earlier and she would fit us in. Imagine going through an endless switchboard and coming up with the same result.
I’ve been in large teaching hospitals in Leeds, Sheffield and London – my son was born in University College Hospital – as a patient, partner and visitor, and sad to say, the experience can be cold, even dismissive.
Back in March, I fully expected my daughter’s dental work to be curtailed with immediate effect. Surely the hospital had more important things to prioritise? Yet, our appointments continued, albeit with strict social distancing measures in place.
Lizzie’s teeth were severely crowded, one even poking out through her gum. Our family dentist had referred her to the hospital orthodontist and from that day onwards we felt cocooned in the embrace of the NHS.
From the very first appointment, when we met the quiet and careful consultant, Mr Holmgren, to the final one, which was last week, I never doubted that the entire orthodontic department had anything but Lizzie’s best interests at heart.
She qualified for NHS treatment because of the severe state of her teeth, but I swear we couldn’t have received better treatment if we had gone private at huge expense – it can cost thousands of pounds for similar work.
I’ve spent many hours in the waiting and treatment rooms with lots of time to observe the NHS at work. Mr Holmgren retired last year, and as far as I know, his post is yet to be filled permanently. This is not to say that the locums we’ve seen have been anything but excellent, but the difficulties facing NHS recruitment worry me.
The Government has announced a huge drive to encourage people to consider nursing as a career, but there are clearly shortages of staff at every level across the UK. A report by the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine found that 40 per cent of ICU units are forced to close beds on a weekly basis due to staff shortages. This is noticeable in our region. Mr Holmgren – we became quite well-acquainted with each other over the years – lived in Derbyshire and travelled to work in Barnsley.
It’s the same in education and public services; we have school principals who live in Leeds and once, memorably, a local authority senior executive who commuted from Wales. Of course, it’s better to import senior professionals than leave posts unfilled.
This is a challenge for many towns in Yorkshire. For our economic future to be sustainable, we need to attract the very best to work – and live – here. Our hospitals should act as magnets, bringing in people who enrich the communities they serve and keep us all safe.
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