Everyone should be made to live for a week on a NHS ward. Especially our politicians. No, not to see how over stretched the staff are. Not to experience how bad the food can be. Not even to see how long you sometimes wait for treatment. But for the simple reason that when you live on a NHS ward you’re forced into close contact with ‘people who are not like you.’
Let’s be honest, we all have our tribes and we all have our prejudices about people who aren’t like us. For most of us – I hope – it’s not based on colour of skin or sexuality anymore but the prejudices are still there. Perhaps nowadays it’s more about what someone is wearing, the newspaper they read, the television show they watch, the way they vote, the place they live, the school they went to.
And for most of our lives we succeed in spending time with people like us. Our families often, though not always, have a similar outlook. We pick our friends. Our work colleagues, if not from the same tribe, are often from a similar one. We live our lives most of the time within a common consensus about what is ‘right’.
And then we get ill and we’re forced to live with total strangers, thrown together because of similarities in the ways our bodies have let us down, rather than similarities in education or income. We eat together, sleep together. We’re together 24 hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end.
We don’t just share magazines and bathrooms; we share nurses, doctors, healthcare assistants. We share knowledge about which ones to ask for help, and which ones seem like they couldn’t care less. We know intimate secrets about each other’s bodies; we hear hushed conversations through thin green curtains, telling us things about our bed neighbours we’d rather not hear. We notice who has regular, loving visitors ..and who doesn’t. Even when one of us retreats behind the curtains, desperate for privacy, we can see the red eyes when they return to view.
I’ll be honest. I often arrive in a ward in a foul mood. Depressed and frustrated at being back in hospital, worried about my illness, my husband and kids, I retreat into non-communication with my fellow patients. No eye contact, monosyllabic answers to those who pry too much, I pull the curtains and lie alone, trying to avoid the reality of what is happening to me.
But after a couple of hours sulking, I have no choice. I’m forced to engage with those around me whoever they are, whatever life they lead, however old they are, whatever their faith, whichever newspaper they choose … and life on the ward is generally better when I do.
And it does broaden your view of the world. We all know in our heads that there are people who are poorer than us or posher than us, less or better educated, or who vote for parties we might consider unthinkable …but until we actually meet those people, it’s the differences that stand out rather than the similarities. Living on a ward can make you more tolerant, less sure of exactly what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, more appreciative of the difficulties other tribes face.
And that’s got to be a good thing. Hasn’t it?