My dad passed away recently. The NHS saved his life repeatedly before he did.
Sometimes I find it’s really difficult to get my head around time. There are months where everything seems to happen and months where nothing does.
It’s hard to imagine that it was so long ago and yet so close, but my dad passed away around a month and a half ago. I’m not 100 per cent sure of the date and don’t particularly feel like looking it up, but it was about four hours after Leicester City won the Premier League.
In reality though, my dad should not have made it to that point.
Nearly six years ago he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, advanced and very aggressive. At that point it was an imminent death sentence, something he kept hidden from us. He had surgery to remove the tumour and remove lymph nodes that had already allowed a minor spread of the cancer.
He recovered and for around nine months that was that. The spectre was still there but the reality was as it had been. My dad went to work, we got on with our lives.
It came back, as these things inevitably do. I can still remember overhearing the conversation before he was told, where he already knew. People understand these things, they know what is happening to their bodies.
Panic stations. People spoke about treatments overseas, but not anyone my dad listened to. He was told by the doctors, by the specialists in Leeds, at the NHS hospital, that there were new options. Clinical trials.
He wouldn’t have to go anywhere to be on the cutting edge. It was right at his front door, around the corner, not on the other side of the world. Whenever he went for a treatment we could visit him with ease. We could do the things he liked for him, like bringing him a McDonald’s (various preferences throughout the treatment: quarter pounder with cheese, chicken selects, small period of obsession with their sweet chilli chicken wraps) or taking him out for a cigarette.
At this point I was at university, an hour and a half away down the road. My dad did not speak on the phone, because he was just that sort of person. I had emails back and forth with him but beyond that my mum was the point of contact. You hear snippets that everything, relatively speaking, is fine, but you assume otherwise. You panic. You worry.
There was not much to worry about. For a while my dad was given a cream. It was a form of chemotherapy. It made him tired in the evening but beyond that he was functional. When I came home from Newcastle he was at home most of the time. The sometimes angry and stressed dad I had known had gone. He had settled into something resembling a temporary retirement, even though at that point he was only around 50-years-old. We would sit around all day watching rolling sports news coverage. He’d give me articles from the paper and tell me they were worth reading.
A memory that stands out is myself and my little brother watching Alien late at night. We’d told my dad and he was very excited about it, but went to bed. During one of the most tense scenes in the film we suddenly heard a voice at the back of the room and both jumped out of our skins. It was our dad, stood there, watching us watch it, having snuck into the room without either of us noticing. He was with us.
The treatments changed. Some were a bit tougher than others. At one point he had chemotherapy targeted directly to his leg. He’d come home reporting how much a bag of something had cost, how they had to wait for him to turn up at the hospital to prepare the treatment, because otherwise they would essentially be flushing several thousand pounds away. All on the NHS, all without him ever having to have a single thought about where the money would come from.
A new one came along. He had ipilimumab in tandem with another drug. It kept him going, again at great cost to the NHS but with no concern on our end. It added years, months, weeks, days, minutes, seconds on to his life. Every one of which I appreciated.
I became closer to him than I ever had before. By that point I realised I wanted to be a sports journalist, and by that point he had realised how much we had in common. We loved the same movies, the same music and the same TV shows. We had always loved the same football team, because I wouldn’t have been allowed to love anything else, but now I could come home and tell him about how I was writing an article about Kevin Hird. ‘An enigma’ was all he could say to me.
At the same time he spent more time with Jordan, our middle brother, who is autistic. My dad went out of his way to watch a film with him every Saturday. He was a film buff, my dad, the record holder for most DVDs rented from our local Blockbuster (genuine fact), and the stuff Jordan selected was often things he had already watched three or four times. He did not mind. He just wanted to spend time with him.
It was essentially a period of years where nothing happened. Nothing happened but we all got closer.
The treatment also meant he could get planning with his magnum opus — a trip to America for all of us. I still remember him mentioning it to me, the clear excitement in his voice. About two weeks of travelling. Arizona. Las Vegas. Driving down the west coast, down Route 1, to finish in LA.
It was incredible. He poured his heart into making it an ideal trip, went out of his way to make sure we were having fun. We swam outside in Arizona as the warmth from the day remained but rain poured from the sky. We ate far too much and far too well. We stood on the beach at San Simeon as fires around us flicked, watching the Pacific Ocean. He took us to a firing range and showed us the skill, several shoulder surgeries later, that had made him a sniper in the army.
I have said since that when I was in California I felt closer to heaven than anywhere else I have been. It is a magical place. It definitely helped that we were all together, one family, aware of how precious this all was.
We got back and everything was normal for a while. I went back to university to study journalism, moving to London. He started to get worse, from what I could understand from the tone of my mum’s voice. One day I was in a lecture and he had a heart attack. He recovered within a few days, treated at the same hospital, then went back home.
I spent five months back in Leeds recently working and it became obvious that he was going downhill. This is the sad part of the story, and one that is maybe worth revisiting more in the future, but it was the ending that was always going to come.
It came later than it should have. As much as the conclusion was him dying, the NHS had already saved his life. Multiple times. Without the treatments he would have been long gone.
They saved him again weeks before he went. He was no longer mobile but insistent on staying at home. He had nurses come visit to clean him, paid for by a combination of charity and the NHS. During one visit he had seizure. They acted quickly, made sure he was okay and got him to a hospice. I found out soon after and immediately came home. Their action meant he stayed alive for another five weeks in the hospice, five more weeks I got to spend with him thanks to the kindness of those around me. He told me stories. The time he and his friends convinced a group of Americans that they were vampire hunters. A friend of his disappearing for 24 hours in Las Vegas only to turn up as if nothing had happened. About meeting my mum.
In the end we got another five and a half years. I got to say goodbye properly. It’s easy to be upset about losing your dad at 54, and I am. It wasn’t fair on him and it wasn’t fair on us, but that’s just the reality. He would be annoyed with me if I moped around, and I’ve tried my best not to.
Last week I saw an article that gave me a bit of a boost. The medicines regulator Nice has approved nivolumab for use with ipilimumab, the same treatment my dad got. The same one that kept him with us, but now extended to the entire NHS, in any hospital.
He had been a guinea pig, and his efforts meant there would be sons out there who got to spend more time with their dads, like I did. Daughters with their mums, sisters with their brothers, husbands with wives, everyone with everyone — the whole gamut.
Where I was happy, I am now concerned.
Last night the UK voted to leave the EU.
I’ve seen no huge issues with the NHS in a position of very direct involvement with it. I am concerned about what may now happen to it with the wrong people in power.
The Leave campaign promised that the £350m figure they referred to as what the UK spent on the EU would be spent on the NHS. I voted Remain, but fine— let’s hold them to that. It’s one of the most beautiful things this country has, so if we are going to make Britain greater, there are few better places to start.
I would have written this if Britain had stayed in and had been planning to. I need to know that from the darkness can come the light — like what I experienced with my dad. Above all else, I will never ever forget the time that the NHS gave me. I appreciate it more and more every day.