The quiet sacrifices of the NHS
Twenty years from now, we all will have a story to share with our sons, daughters, and grandchildren. Many of them will be stolen from the obscure overview of what we see on the streets, news, and media. Many will be from how our close-ones slept in hospital beds before departing us, many from the startling death tolls. A story, however, that we do not hear much is that of the people dealing with the death tolls every day and setting up the hospital beds every night.
Rachel Clarke reminds us of the intensity of the ongoing tragedy in her autobiographical Breathtaking (Little, Brown, 2021), told from the extraordinary perspective of a palliative care doctor. Amidst moments that push the world to the verge of collapse, Clarke holds the responsibility to look after wards of the most perilous patients in Oxfordshire. The book gives an impassioned description of the views from inside the National Health Service (NHS), many of them enough to freeze you in your tracks.
"Listening to the politicians and journalists talk—loftily, from afar, an Olympian perspective—coronavirus feels like a mathematical abstraction, an intellectual exercise played out in curves and peaks and troughs and endless iterations of modelling", says Clarke in the first part of her book, which mainly focuses on interviews with healthcare professionals, patients, and families of the deceased. The part clearly paints a picture of the colossal damage that the pandemic has caused—not economically or politically, but the damage that it does when someone you love passes away silently in the next room.
With only 2.5 beds for 1,000 patients, unfilled vacancies of 40,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors, the statistics only show what was unwelcome. The existing staff hover like ghosts at bedsides, veiled behind their protective equipment. Intubation, which is a complex enough process during normal times, was frequent. Sally, a young nurse, is flustered at her delicate task of depressing the patient's tongue with a metal blade and steering the tube downwards, past the trachea—except this time, the procedure is significantly more complex. The oxygen support needs to be removed, and the process needs to be completed before the level falls to zero. The chapter describes the gravity of the intensity that Sally faces within these few seconds, representing the tension in the hospitals every moment.
The fortitude of sacrifices made by members of the NHS staff was a key objective of the book. Not to mention, the courage of the essential services departments who had their own lives to save and families to feed. In fact, the book was dedicated to the workers who lost their lives at the Oxford University Hospitals.
The book tremendously encapsulates what could never be seen from the outside. Clarke mentions that it is not a book that has been written to extend anger to the inefficient government, rather a book that describes the rawness of a time that will be looked back on for centuries to come.
Md Tanjim Hossain is a contributor.
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