My Run-in with British Healtcare

It was March 21st 1995 and I was hard charging Naval Intelligence Officer (LCDR) and was stationed at Navy HQ in downtown London. I had a wife who was two months pregnant and confined to her bed in order to carry our future Son to term (She did it for me and I will always love her for that). I was in the Gym at the bottom of the London Embassy finishing up what was an unusually difficult lunch time exercise session. I had been feeling out of sorts for the past week or so when I exercised, so I thought I was getting the flu or something.

I finished my rowing machine workout and decided to have a sauna. I went in, threw water on the hot stones and WHAM, it felt like an elephant had stepped on my chest. I thought I had scalded my lungs with steam. Somehow, I got out of there and went and took a long cold shower. The shower stalls in the embassy were massive, so I soon found myself curled up in the bottom and letting the cold water run over me. After a while (I lost track of time), I got up, put back on my clothes and walked back across the square to the Navy building and got back to work. My Wife’s birthday was the next day, so I took off a little early and went to Selfridges and bought her a Royal Doultan dinner set for eight, lugged it on the train and headed home in time to do the laundry and fix a meal.

Two days later, as I ran up the stairs to attend a staff meeting, the elephant returned. Everyone at the meeting said I looked like crap and I just said it was indigestion (I had GURD and took Zantac). My Boss, bless him, ordered me to go get checked out at the Navy Medical Clinic that was a 30 minute train ride from HQ. (I resisted the idea… I was a workaholic in those days) So I gave my folks rudder orders as to what needed to get done for the day and told them I would be back to check up the progress. The elephant by then had disappeared and I thought my trip was a waste of time.

I got to the Navy clinic and they decided to do an EKG on me, just a precaution. (I luckily had one done during a checkup three months earlier). Next thing I know they are strapping a oxygen mask on me and putting an IV in my arm. I ask “what the hell?” and the Doc says, “we aren’t sure, but we are sending you to the local hospital for tests. You may have had a heart attack….” My descent into the British National Healthcare system had begun.

I was sent by ambulance to the local emergency room, where for a couple of hours I lay on a gurney in the hall after they took some blood. After a while, the doctor comes to me and says “The blood work came back and you had a heart attack three days ago. What you had today was an angina attack. You are lucky. You are young, only 37, so you get to go to the head of the line.” Those words chilled me. My first thought was for my wife, my second thought was I was too young and had to get back to work and my third thought was I feel sorry those old bastards in their 60’s that have to go to the back of the line.

Head of the line meant I went to the local hospital general ward and waited for an opening at the heart center (or “centre” if you live in Britain) at Harefield Hospital in London. For three weeks I lived on the ward. The nurses, bless them, worked hard, but the overall condition of the ward was old and dingy and trying to sleep there was next to impossible with the traffic and noises of the old and decrepit. (And before you comment on my lack of noise tolerance, you are talking to a man who for three years slept like a baby just under the deck from the #1 and 2 catapults on the USS Eisenhower)

During my first week, there was an old man dying of lung disease next to me and everyday this shabbily dressed man (who I assumed was related to him) would come in and sit next to him. Near the end of the week, the dying man’s visitor was talking to him, telling him the end was near and to start praying, etc. I could tell the old gent in the bed was getting agitated and I called a nurse and whispered to her that she might want to intervene and tell his relative to back off. The nurse looked at the guy and said, “Oh, that’s old Bob… he’s homeless and we let him come in here and keep some of the folks without friends company.” The old man died the next day and the weeks slowly passed until finally I was admitted to Harefield Hospital, which I must admit, was a step up in quality.

After a week there I was finally treated with a balloon angioplasty, and it went horribly awry. They accidentally “tore” a vessel. But, they decided to send me home and see how I did. How I did was after a week I had another angina attack and I was readmitted to Harefield. By then, My father had arrived in England. My Dad was a radiation oncologist and had a private practice in rural North Carolina. He was with me during this time at Harefield. At this point, the Navy stepped in and was ordering me to Naval Hospital Bethesda. It was my impression the cardiologist at Harefield didn’t appreciate this, but my Dad, whom I trusted, said to me “Son, do as the Navy tells you” (I didn’t want to leave my pregnant wife). I was flown the next day to Bethesda and two days and three stents later I was in the Officer’s Quarters watching the OJ trial and was starting a highly structured cardio rehab program, complete with cardiac monitoring and nurse supervision.

My Dad later told me he was appalled at the state of the hospital at Harefield (which is the premier heart hospital in England). He said he saw equipment and tools being used that he hadn’t seen since he practiced in the 50’s. He swore his radiation department, which already had a MRI and CAT scan (and was located in a county of 60,000) , was better equipped than Harefield’s X-ray department.

Long story short, I was medically retired soon afterwards. I have opted for the private health care system for my post Naval career and have never waited a day for treatment for my cardiac issues. When I started having shortness of breath five years ago, I called my doctor and BOOM, next day I had some more stents. Late last October, I had another warning sign and the next day they did a cardiac catheterization and my cardiologist (who is a saint) said it’s time for that bypass we always knew was coming. I met my surgeon the next day and few days later I had a quad bypass. I went in on a Thursday and was home the following Tuesday. After six weeks, I started a three times a week cardio rehab program that included heart monitoring and personal supervision by an outstanding nurse.

I buried my father last October. I was proud to give his eulogy to a packed room. I didn’t know that in month I would have bypass surgery, but I made it a point to say that men like my father made the American health care system the envy of the world. We mess with it at our peril.

As the Obama administration starts its push for nationalised healthcare, I know what will be in store for me in the future if Obama wins. When that next event happens and the Doctor tells me I’ve had another heart attack or something akin to it in severity, I know I won’t hear the words “You’re lucky, you are young, you get to go to the head of the line”. I’ll probably be too old and will be shuffled off to the end of the line.