In Praise of The Royal Free Hospital, London

On a snowy Saturday morning earlier this year I crunched my way over to A&E at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, NW London.

For the previous week-and-a-bit I had experienced a familiar pain in my left kidney and was worried that the stones I’d last seen on a scan some years back were about to jangle their way out.

I was on edge: the last time I had experienced this pain was in the scruffy chaos of a large Indian hospital (I lived in Pune, Maharashtra from 2008 to 2015) and I was expecting a total rigmarole.

The morning I spent at the Royal Free A&E, aided by the beautiful snowy day, was the total opposite: peaceful, ordered, calm. The hospital was new and spotlessly clean. The admin process was slick, the equipment brand new. The doctors and nurses I met at the Royal Free were brilliant: an ethnically diverse group of polite, professional young Brits. Clear communicators. One of the surprises of coming back to Britain after a long period away was that suddenly Doctors were my age or younger. So at the Royal Free I felt an instinctive pride; that this institution demonstrated something about Britain and about my generation, and that when turned over to this group of young professionals our institutions would be in safe hands.

The Royal Free and I have something of a history. In 1997 my aunty Margaret was taken from our local hospital in Southampton up to the Royal Free. Tragically, she had attempted suicide; her organs had failed and she was in a coma. After a period of about 6 weeks she passed away in the Royal Free.

It was an intense time.

I remember Dad driving us (my brother and I) up to relieve my mum who would spend days at a time up in London at Margaret’s bedside with my dear Grandma and my other aunties.

I remember Grandma pouring me plastic cups of rubicon mango juice from the carton. This was in the little suite near the intensive care unit where the family stayed. I was about 12, I remember thinking the half-sized fridge was “cool”.

I remember a favourite uncle arriving, exhausted but still looking dapper — some years since he left the army, but working in dirty London his shoes still shone! I remember my mum’s pride in her younger brother; a Geordie lad who’d done good down south. Sat with him and my brother in a waiting room I pointed out to him that the TV was bolted to the table. In response, picking up on what we were thinking, he told us a story about a fully decorated Christmas tree getting nicked from another London hospital!

Towards the end I remember going down the stairs; six or seven flights, and then the half flight at the end so Dad — still a smoker back then - could have a cigarette outside or get stuff from the car.

Margaret was a beautiful woman, and not yet 40 when she died. Wisely my parents decided my brother and I were too young to attend such a sad funeral. Looking back it’s clear that Grandma’s premature death two years later was hastened by the awful experience.

Twenty years later at the end of 2017 I jogged down that familiar staircase with my brother to pick up some sandwiches from the M&S in the lobby. The Royal Free was no longer somewhere I associated with deep bereavement and family tragedy but with the joyful promise of new life: my beautiful niece had been born the previous day, and I had just held her in the maternity ward overlooking the skyline of our magnificent capital city!

Following my A&E trip I went back for further scans, and received some follow up phone calls. Everything has been excellent and, thank goodness, the pain in my kidney was not more kidney stones but something much more minor requiring no extra treatment, just a follow up scan in a year’s time which I’m actually quite looking forward to!

One phone call I received was a follow-up evaluation, at the time I described my experience of the Royal Free as being “like a private hospital”, though thinking about it I don’t know if a private hospital would attract the small army of dedicated volunteers who greeted me at the entrance and helped me find the right departments.

In conclusion: I love the NHS, the best thing about it is the people who staff it, and the Royal Free really is excellent.