The Healing House

Poet Patrick Jones pays tribute to the NHS as it reaches its 70th birthday, remembering the extraordinary care given to his mother Irene, who passed away in June this year after suffering from leukaemia.

Irene Jones and Patrick. Image courtesy Patrick Jones.

‘The public interest is taken care of by the private interest of wanting to make money.’
John Redwood, 1994
‘We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders.’
Aneurin Bevan, 1945

And you, my mother.

Driving home. Just out of hospital. The summer ablaze, all around us. We drive through a broken-bottled area of town: drunks swagger, voices shout, men punch, an alcoholic haze, litter paints the pavement. You look out of the window, a warm breeze brushing your cheeks.
‘Look at those flower baskets,’ you say.
‘Oh those colours just there at the side of the road’,
I had never really noticed. ‘Yes, lilies and pansies, oh they are so beautiful.’

That is all you need to know about my mother.

The NHS had given her a breath of life. Where to turn when your 79-year-old mother cannot get out of bed and keeps fainting? Who to cling to? What to hold close? One call and the ball starts rolling. She had been ill for a while but didn’t want to make a fuss. However we finally persuaded her to seek help. Reticently she agreed, and we took her to the Royal Gwent hospital for assessment. Waiting rooms, blood tests, ECGs and saline drips… Later they kept her in. We were relieved as knew something wasn’t quite right.

Among the sound of the trolley wheels and the monitor’s pulse I heard a voice.

‘Bring your children to the nursery
with their disease and sickness,
this is the place where I hope to cure all illness
at the point of need, this is an emergency’

A soothing voice.

‘come now, our tomorrow
rest yourself
as i halt fear and heal bone marrow,
and, from an early death
i promise emancipation,
with my doctors, nurses
and vaccinations’

More blood tests. Needles. Gentle words. Tubes bringing life. Calming hands. Blood counts. New words. Dialects from all over the world. All distilled into one ward. Time and more time. Knowledge is power, care the key, a plethora of facts empowering the patient and close family. Free at the point of need. My mother was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia and admitted into the Haematology ward. A place of slanting light, slow thoughts, specialist nurses and dedicated care. Imagine how much this would cost in the USA? I can see the dollar signs and the repayment options.

A strong voice.

‘let in the mothers
the pool is ready for another,
carer of the next generation,
sleep, prepare for this new birth,
I offer you protection,
as you grow the roots of our new earth

welcome, people from other nations,
with troubled faces from distant places,
i have room for you, my new patients,
i have no borders to caring,
pain has no dialect, this language is for sharing,
let love be found in translation

sit, eat from my pantry,
become healthy
as you, you are my ultimate test,
bring me your tortured tongues
so you may speak again
from far off battlefields show your scarred flesh
so i can stem the blood and heal your pain.’

She is offered treatment options: chemotherapy, injections, experimental methods of fighting this cruel condition. Sadly but bravely she chooses not to have any treatment but to take it as it comes. Deep breaths. The staff are honest and respectful and offer us support and the way forward.

A reassuring voice.

‘to you, the wiser, the elderly, the old,
do not be afraid, do not huddle in the cold,
my door is open,
come in, come in,
it is warm, trust us,
and i shall lance the boils of poverty's injustice,
and drain the infection,
as in my house these rooms
offer cure by prevention,’

However, we knew there isn’t any ultimate prevention to this. A home-care plan is laid out before she leaves the hospital. Mam comes home. A new bed is installed. Encircled by love, St David’s Foundation Hospice Care and an underfunded yet stoic NHS system of GPs, prescriptions, leukaemia clinics, district nurses and out-of-hours services, we took each day as it came.

A needed voice.

‘and so to the sick, to the dying, those crippled with
stay, in my garden,
lay, beneath the trees
i shall provide peace and serenity
to strengthen the health of vulnerability
no matter what age, sex, class, race or country,’

My mother, Irene, had hardly ever been ill. Two children delivered in NHS hospitals. A slipped disc, a dose of flu but that was it. Never a doctor to the house or a visit to A and E.

A practical voice.

my windows pour penicillin
my library, the words of the masters,
Simpson, Pasteur and Fleming
not market forces or ignorant capitalists

Each day was difficult for her. Starved of oxygen, her blood cells struggled to feed her vital organs. Walking became increasingly problematic. She faced terrible bouts of passing out when standing. Her heart, fragile like a bird’s, would work harder and harder to keep her body going. She and my father forged a daily routine of early rising, tea and toast, personal care and sharing stories. Mam ate well, and managed to do little chores around the house. I always looked forward to her shopping lists every few days where I would trawl the aisles of Sainsbury’s to locate a lettuce that wasn’t from Spain (she would never buy anything Spanish due to their love of bullfighting!) and free range organic eggs (preferably laid by a chicken called Julie!). She held fast. We appreciated every day. Held onto the magical mundanities of life. The mashed potato, the cuppa soup, the fresh flowers, the healing nap. Her 80th birthday came, then Christmas my Dad’s birthday, Easter. Landmarks we didn’t ever think we’d share.

A warning voice.

so be careful how you treat your house, our home
never neglect or leave alone
keep clean, add extensions
but never damage the bricks or remove my foundations

Leukaemia is a mercilessly cruel condition that slowly takes life from its host. After the third blood transfusion my mother decided she did not want any more. We knew time was running short then. Still always smiling, still forever asking about everyone else’s life, my mother looked more and more frail. A stoic East Londoner, she was never going to merely submit, but it was getting harder and harder to give the care she now required at home, and she took the brave decision to go into the hospice on her own terms.

One of the saddest days of our lives.

Even so, she still smiled, still talked about current affairs, cricket and how to make the best stew. St David’s Hospice is part-funded by the NHS and Mam was supported and cared for by sensitive, kind and honest NHS doctors in the final stages of her wonderful life.

A resolute voice.

from the wasteland of squalor, disease and
I am the safe place
the healing home
injecting cells with reconstruction,
the everlasting bandage
to deliver all from illnessed bondage

In the age of Hillsborough, Aberfan, Orgreave and Grenfell, where public money intended for public services supports the private gain of companies like RBS, Virgin and Carillion. Where profit comes before people, where we see the prosperity disguised by austerity, where government ministers hold shares by proxy in companies they laud. The NHS stands as a leviathan of hope, a castle of care that we turn to in desperate times. It stands there waiting, offering us its services free, at the point of need.70 years on we need it more than ever. My mother needed it more than ever, and it delivered.

There was no light at the end of the tunnel for my beautiful mother, Irene.

This voice will not be silenced.

‘I am the suture
to stitch the wounds of the past….’

But the nurses, the blood transfusions, the intravenous drips, the out-of-hours doctor visits, the hospital stays, ambulances, the consultants, the receptionists, the prescriptions, the reassurance, the support from St David’s Foundation, the care given by family and the love of my father Allen enabled the tunnel to go on a lot longer than we first thought.

My mother passed away on June 1st 2018. There is now a terrible silence every day I awake. I miss the shopping lists and seeing her little notebook where she’d scribble down her poems and thoughts. I miss her waving me away with her hand when I’d refuse to take any money for the supplies, but there is also my mother’s voice in my head that tells me to live with love in my heart, to add flour to stock cubes to make the tastiest stew, to stand up for animal rights and never buy a thing from Spain. The NHS wasn’t there when she was born. It was at the end of her glorious life to shoulder some of the burden.

And if I listen very carefully I catch this voice in the breeze,

Stronger than ever.

‘but i am the scalpel
to carve the future
to make Aneurin’s dream last
to make this dream last.’

Dedicated to the memory of my mother, Irene Jones (1937-2018) and to the NHS (1948- ).

Quotations are from ‘The Healing House’ by Patrick Jones, commissioned in 2008 by the Bevan Foundation to commemorate the NHS’s 60th anniversary.

Nye Bevan stones, Tredegar, commemorating Aneurin Bevan © Patrick Jones

Nye Bevan stones, Tredegar, commemorating Aneurin Bevan © Patrick Jones

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