Whenever I try to use the NHS I end up feeling like Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense. No one can see me. It is as if I don’t exist. And unlike Dr Malcolm Crowe in the movie, I have not, as I wait in hospital and GP surgery queues, found an ally with a special gift which enables him to see me when no one else can.
No one has ever come up to me and whispered: ‘I see sick people!’ Instead, I languish like a ghost in every south London minor injury clinic, A&E and doctor’s surgery.
Recently, I received a letter informing me that my local GP surgery was closing and I would have to go elsewhere. While I was impressed that they had at least managed to acknowledge my existence by telling me to bugger off, I felt this was a bit of a cheek.
I was sent to this particular surgery a few years ago by another surgery who chucked me out. On that occasion I didn’t even receive a letter. They simply stopped acknowledging my existence.
I went up to the counter one day to ask for an appointment and the receptionist denied I was anything to do with them. When I tried to argue, she threatened me with security. After I burst into tears, she grudgingly looked me up and explained I had been the casualty of a ‘boundary change’.
I re-registered with the nearest GP I could find to my flat: a tiny surgery two streets away where they were happy to take me on and where I have been desperately trying to get them to treat me for various minor complaints ever since, usually succeeding after several visits, relentless bombardments of telephone calls and threats to throw myself off bridges. You may remember it took me so long to persuade them to treat me for the menopause I was through the worst of it by the time I got my hands on hard drugs.
On one occasion, the practice nurse jabbed me extra hard with a tetanus vaccination after I complained about waiting times. I had to threaten them with the information commissioner after they refused to let me see my medical notes: ‘they’re our property!’
But I have had some kind of service. So I was slightly sorry to get the letter giving me the boot again, and informing me of other surgeries I might traipse round — a process called ‘NHS Choices’. I traipsed to the nearest one.
The receptionist looked vaguely in my direction, then looked vaguely at the letter in my hand, then told me vaguely that it was nothing to do with them.
So I traipsed to the next one, which was miles away. When I got there, the receptionist admitted that my notes were there. I could be a patient of theirs if I wanted to.
I told her ‘hallelujah!’ and that I needed a repeat prescription for the menopause medication the doctor had put me on before dumping me, sorry, giving me more NHS Choices.
She pointed to the repeat prescription forms on the counter. ‘When shall I come back for it?’ I asked. ‘Hmm? Two days…’ she said, looking at something else.
That was Thursday, so I didn’t try to pick it up before Monday afternoon. ‘Hmmm?’ said the lady when I arrived. She rifled through her box of completed scripts. ‘No. You haven’t put in for it.’
‘But you saw me do it!’
‘No,’ she said, ‘you can’t have.’
‘Fine, I’ll put in for it again.’ And I wrote out another form and popped it in the box. ‘How long this time?’ ‘Hmmm? Two days…’ She was reading something again. ‘No wait. Try tomorrow. She’s doing them tonight.’
The next day, as I stood before her, she opined: ‘Your what?’ Then she went through the box of scripts. ‘No. You can’t have.’
‘Look! I know you saw me! Remember? I stood here! You watched me do it! Please! Try to remember!’
And then the miracle happened. She looked up. She looked into my eyes. She looked at me. Not through me. And then she said: ‘You’re right. You were here! You did put that request in! I remember you!’
It was incredible! Feelings of elation and shock overtook me. Someone in the NHS had seen me. Someone in the NHS could see patients! ‘Yes! I remember!’ she went on, clearly elated herself to discover she had this extraordinary gift. ‘You put in for it twice!’
And she told me to come back later that day and she would have it ready. And I did come back. And she did have it ready. And although she didn’t look up as she handed it to me, resuming business as usual, I will always treasure the memory of that very special moment.