The kindness of strangers and the NHS — the lessons I’ve learned from a broken ankle…

I’m a very lucky man. Unfortunately, I had to be unlucky to have this rammed home to me. I broke my ankle on Sunday evening after slipping on a wet manhole cover.

So I’m on crutches for six weeks or so and out of action more generally for a little while — not brilliant as I depend on freelance earnings while looking for something more full-time, but them’s the breaks. Ouch.

I was lucky to be surrounded by so many good people when the accident happened. Naturally, it was in my own street in Charlton, south-east London. I’d just been to Lewisham to buy a new vacuum cleaner, and was carrying the box off the bus to go home. It was 5.15pm.

I remember asking a gentleman with a baby if I could get past, idly thought about a quick spot of Sunday night vacuuming before heading out for a mate’s birthday, then…


Not again.

I’d fallen here before. On this bloody manhole cover. Why hadn’t I complained t0 the council last time? As my vision began to fill up with concerned faces, I cursed myself for the comedy pratfall. Then I saw the angle of my foot.

The pain started to roll up. I wasn’t going to be getting up any time soon. I tried, and it wasn’t pretty. A woman started saying soothing things to me. I began to feel as if I was having an out of body experience.

Heaven knows what would have happened if it wasn’t for the little group that waited with me. Rachel, who also slid on the cover before righting herself, produced her phone. Sheila, who lives around the corner, called the ambulance and offered to look after my Dyson until I could pick it up.

The gentleman with the baby, and his wife, took turns to wait with me. Several people approached us and identified themselves as first aiders. It’s fine, we said, the ambulance will come soon.

Lying on the pavement, looking at the street lights

The ambulance took 90 minutes to come. In my limited experience of 999 calls, they’ve come almost immediately. I wasn’t to know it’d be such a long wait, so I turned down offers of help from loved ones to come over. I’d be in the hospital soon, I thought…

But I wasn’t. Another 999 call was made. Still no sign. The skies darkened. The street lights came on. A lovely lady from the flats over the road came out and gave me a blanket and a cushion.

On the hour mark, a woman came past with her husband. She was a first aider, asked some questions about whether my bone was sticking out (I couldn’t bear to look) and made another 999 call. “You’re now a priority,” she told me.

We listened as a the sound of a siren approached… then faded away.

The temperature dropped. We all struggled to make small talk — about the weather, the road being used as a rat run by speeding drivers, on how I could tell how long I’d been there by the number of buses that passed. Another bus was a cue for another phone call from our first aider. None of us had waited such a long time for an ambulance, but all of us realised this was a sign of how the National Health Service is starting to crumble.

Finally… the ambulance arrived, in a blaze of blue lights and apologies.

I don’t remember much after that. They cut my jeans and sock, removed my shoe, and I caught a glimpse of the horror inside. Then I was put on gas and air, got giggly, and rode the London Ambulance Service fairground ride over the speed humps and far away. The ambulance crew were brilliant. I was lucky to have had them.

By the time I got to the hospital, I remember cracking bad jokes about my cold feet and greeting the doctor who gave me morphine like an old friend. I noticed the roof of the place where I was taken was similar to the roof of the ambulance. I thought that was brilliant.

The jewels of Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich

The rest of Sunday night was a blur. Off to be x-rayed. Back to wherever it was they’d taken me. Medics shoving my bones into some kind of sensible position. Back to be x-rayed. Have some more drugs, why don’t you? And so on.

Looking back at text messages I sent, it’s clear I didn’t know how serious things were. And why should I have done? I was high as a kite on morphine. My dad appeared at 1am. More x-rays, queuing up on trolleys with other unfortunates in various states of distress or embarrassment.

And the staff were brilliant. But they had an unbelievable workload. I had to ask to be wheeled into an x-ray theatre so I could wee into a bottle. The chap who got me in there forgot I was in there. No problem, I was grateful for the relief. And still off my face on morphine, probably.

By 5am, the verdict. They’d have to operate at about 9am. I was taken to a day ward. More people came, did more things, and I slept a bit. Did I want a spinal anaesthetic or a general anaesthetic? Oh, knock me out. I was wheeled into theatre to be greeted by a sea of friendly faces. The last thing I remember is wondering what happens when you’re knocked out by general anaesthetic. Well, it’s…

I came round on Monday afternoon at ten past two. Lots of friendly people came round and did lots of things to me. My parents came to visit at about 4pm with supplies. After initially thinking I might be home on Sunday night, I wasn’t going home on Monday either. Lots more people came round and did lots more things. My girlfriend, Clare, arrived later on. She held my hand and I feel asleep.

Life on the day care ward

The doctors visited early on the Tuesday and confirmed I should be able to go. I spent much of the day waiting around for physio and a few other things. There was a lot of time to observe my surroundings.

I’d been placed on a day ward. I’m not sure I was really meant to be there. The stress on the staff and the system was evident. The man next to me had been been there all weekend, expecting to go home all the time. He got his escape wish on Monday night. Someone came in opposite me at the same time and duly did a runner. Clare tells me she heard the hospital staff fretting because he still had equipment in his arm.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich was opened under an ill-conceived Private Finance Initiative in 2001, and the repayments sank its NHS trust. It’s now under the wing of the neighbouring Lewisham trust, but it’s still hard work — exacerbated by booming populations and the downgrading of Queen Mary’s Hospital, which serves adjacent Bexley borough.

Here I was, one more little strain on a creaking system. Yet I was never treated with anything less than respect, and most of the time I was treated like a friend. One nurse told another patient I was her son — I reckon we’re actually about the same age…

I’ve marched for Lewisham Hospital and sworn at Jeremy Hunt when he’s appeared on my TV. But until Sunday I’d been fortunate enough to have only made minimal use of the National Health Service. By Tuesday, as sleety snow fell on Woolwich Common, I was being loaded into a car, and I was hugely grateful for it.

Unlucky and lucky

Now I’ve got to spend the next few weeks figuring out crutches, trying to forget about lost income, and not travelling very far. Maybe some day I’ll get round to using that vacuum cleaner. I’m grateful to be able to hide out for a few days with my parents, who have the good sense to live in a bungalow. Those stairs can wait…

I was horribly unlucky to have come a cropper on Sunday, but hugely lucky to have encountered the professionalism and friendliness of all at QEH. Our NHS staff deserve better than the treatment they get from ignorant politicians and a servile media that can afford to turn a blind eye to the consequences of their actions, from bad finance deals to smears and bullying over a “seven day NHS” that plainly already exists.

They need our support — now.

And without the actions of my neighbours, who waited for 90 minutes with me for that ambulance, I’d be in an even worse state.

A few years ago, I created a news site for my neck of the words, which I called the Charlton Champion because it was nicely alliterative. Well, I met the Charlton champions on Sunday night — it turns out they were my neighbours. To them, thank you.