I’ve found the last five weeks very frustrating, due mainly to two things that give all freelancers the sweats. Firstly, illness. Secondly, booking an appointment with a doctor – for me at my local GP practice, St Winifred’s in Broadstairs.
As my luck would have it, I became a one-man snot factory with a constant hacking cough in early April, shortly before I was due to attend Business in the Community’s (BitC) excellent Responsible Business Week events in London.
But the outward impression that I was carrying the plague was hardly conducive to effective networking, interviewing, writing or working generally. Consequently, I’ve barely posted anything for weeks.
With no improvement in my condition on my return to the Sunshine Isle of Thanet from London, it was obvious I needed medical advice.
And this led me into my first contact with the NHS since it was reorganised – with no electoral mandate or noticeable popular support – by the coalition government.
They have quietly ushered in an age of greater private-sector delivery of care, a shift to healthcare insurance and, presumably at some point, health rationing.
Actually, my impression is that the rationing bit might be kicking in already, so it’s important to avoid being cast as a member of the Undeserving Sick and lose my access to care.
Now, I don’t particularly like visiting the doctor, so I initially went to see my pharmacist instead. On the no-pain-no-gain principle, I assumed there would be some appropriately hideous herbal remedy I could take to settle things down.
But, to my surprise, the pharmacist refused to sell me anything at all. I, apparently, needed antibiotics immediately. So I reluctantly decided to give my health centre a call.
Booking an appointment
In keeping with millions of primary care patients across the UK, arranging a doctor’s appointment increasingly requires planning, guile and persistence.
It seems the more demand for primary care services rises, the more booking a GP appointment resembles the entry process for Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In other words, a bit of general knowledge comes in handy.
My health centre is one of the busiest on the Sunshine Isle, and you can only book an appointment on the day by calling at or immediately after 8am.
I duly phoned at 08:00:05 the following morning to be met by the inevitable engaged tone. Luckily, using technology similar to that employed by high-frequency traders on the US futures market, my app can redial the number up to 250 million times a second – until, at around 8.15am, I finally get through.
“Thank you for calling Broadstairs St Winifred’s GP practice – your first call for health and personal wellbeing. What’s the capital of Mozambique?”
“Thank you! You’re through to Julie. How can I help?”
It transpires that all the appointment slots with suitably-qualified health professionals have been taken and I should call again at 8am tomorrow. Although, there is still one remaining slot available with the cleaner, at 3.30 this afternoon, if I’m interested…
I opt to call again the following day and, to my surprise, managed to get through at 8.10am.
“Thank you for calling Broadstairs St Winifred’s GP practice – your first call for health and personal wellbeing. To the nearest 10,000, what was the total attendance at the 1982 FA Cup final between QPR and Tottenham Hotspur?”
Hmmm, that’s a very ingenious question! I seem to remember that Spurs won the final in a replay, with both matches held at the old Wembley…
“Ten seconds left.”
…after its capacity had been reduced from 100,000 to 90,000.
“The answer’s 180,000.”
“Thank you! You’re through to Monica. How can I help?”
Unfortunately, there were no appointments left with any of the doctors, but I could see the nurse practitioner, instead. Hurrah! Yes, I’ll see the nurse! Thank you ever so much!
Appointment number 1
Today, the health centre is running on London Underground Time (LUT), in which the main unit of time – let’s call them ‘minutes’ – are infinitely flexible in length.
Often, in any countdown to a tube train’s arrival, the first one or two ‘minutes’ can last several times the real thing, while subsequent units can vanish with the blink of an eye.
On the Tube, the end of your wait is traditionally marked by a generalised passing of wind. But this isn’t the Central line, and I’m eventually called to see the nurse around 20 minutes after my appointment time.
I describe my condition: the mountains of mucous in all their various colours; the incessant coughing; the bubbling in my chest; the fatigue. She gets to work. Do I have a fever? No. She looks down my throat and gets her stethoscope out and listens to my lungs.
“It’s all clear,” she said, like a slightly disappointed explorer. Yes, I explained, right now it might be. But, for most of the time, I’m a one-man coughing snot factory. And, on past evidence, both the coughing and the snot will return all too soon, thanks for asking.
She confirms that the virus could hang around for months – which isn’t reassuring. Drink lots of liquids and take lots of rest, and you might be better before the month is out, she said.
But she decides against prescribing any antibiotics – or, indeed, anything at all – as she doesn’t detect any secondary bacterial infection. I feel I didn’t Play My Cards Right at all, so I have become, by default, a fully unpaid member of the Undeserving Sick.
Rather deflated, I return to the pharmacist, who is apoplectic at the lack of antibiotics. Doctors are being too restrictive, the pharmacist argues, snubbing obvious cases of infection to save money. Sigh.
This time, I’m sold a moderately hideous herbal remedy that is thick and dark. Mixed with hot water, it warms my throat to give the impression that something useful is happening. The passage of time, however, suggests the contrary, and the feeling of infection spreads from my throat to my chest and lungs. A week later and I’m feeling much worse.
- I decide to abandon all notions of work and become totally inactive in a bid to halt my decline and speed recovery.
- I remove all alcohol and coffee, as well as virtually all dairy products, from my diet.
- I crank up my vitamin C intake, try a wide range of remedies and commune with my various boxes of man-sized tissues.
- I’m sleeping much longer every day.
But nothing works. Nothing. And, in a telling reflection of my life, even my cough has become unproductive.
Two weeks of this, and the cough and cold has turned into a monster. Indeed, on one occasion, my coughing fit is so intense that I pass out and, when I regain consciousness, find myself lying on my back on my hallway floor. Time to revisit the doctor, methinks.
Appointment number 2
“Thank you for calling Broadstairs St Winifred’s GP practice – your first call for health and personal wellbeing. To the nearest 50,000 square miles, what is the landmass of East Falkland?”
Christ! What sort of question’s that? Apart from Margaret Thatcher’s crusade to rescue these tiny South Atlantic specs from the Argentinians, I know next to nothing about the Falklands.
“You have ten seconds left.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll say 200,000 square miles.”
“Ooh, luckily for you we’re not too busy today, sir, so I’ll give you that one. You’re through to Julie. How can I help?”
Surprisingly, there are no appointments left with any of the doctors today, but I do get to see the nurse practitioner again.
The nurse rightly notes that I can barely speak and that I break into fits of coughing around every fourth word I attempt. She looks into my ears. “Still no fever.” She looks down my throat and gets out the stethoscope. “Breathe deeply. Hmmm, I can hear crackling in your lungs,” she said.
I was very impressed – that she could hear the crackling through the burbling, gurgling, chemistry-experiment party that was going on in my chest. “You need antibiotics.” Hurrah!
All’s well that ends well…
The pharmacist is relieved I finally have some antibiotics. “It’s a shame you didn’t get this first time around. You didn’t need to go through all this. You obviously had an infection and it would inevitably spread.”
The pharmacist advises me to take daily effervescent vitamin C and zinc supplements for the foreseeable future “as your immune system will have been compromised and you’ll remain vulnerable to other infections”. No need for hideous herbal remedies, though, so that’s something, I suppose.
Today, I’ve just finished my course of antibiotics and, though I’m obviously on the mend, the infection in my chest is holding out for an extended fight. Still, I’m getting back to writing (hence this article, to release the frustration).
But I’ve not ruled out further visits to the doctor and so I’m going to brush up on my general knowledge. I might as well because when you’ve got the cough-and-cold equivalent of the plague, there’s bugger all else to do with your time.