On November 9th it was confirmed that Donald Trump had won the American election, becoming president elect. On the same day my 19 month old daughter had a prolonged seizure, stopped breathing, was rushed to hospital and had to be intubated and put on a ventilator.
A generalised and uncertain horror was replaced with a very specific and uncertain horror.
My wife and I spent the next five days in various hospitals. The first 24 hours were the most difficult. A tiny body, spiked with fever, in induced paralysis with a machine pushing her little lungs open and closed. X-Rays, CT scans, cannulations. The informed, yet speculative administration of antibiotics and antivirals. A lumbar puncture. The narrative of pathology built up and pared back, built up again, made robust, transformed into a platform for further action.
We feel lucky down to our bones.
Apart from a fitful third day of deep chest recession, her chest crumpling in hyperventilation like a brown paper bag, our daughter’s recovery was nearly a straight line, ruled from the low terror of respiratory failure to the high of seeing everything returned to her. Her body’s colour, her words, her energy and curiosity all re-settling across her like a flock of birds rolling onto the land from the air.
We felt lucky in other ways too.
In the anxious boredom of waiting for her to get better, and in our progress from despair to relief, my wife and I could express what we were grateful for.
Grandparents on call and at our side, siblings and cousins and friends massed in support.
“Imagine if we had to pay for this,” one of us said. But the National Health Service is free at the point of access and so the financial hardships that can be associated with treating the people you love most are removed.
The professionalism, care and empathy of the staff at the Whittington, at Great Ormond Street and at the Children’s Acute Transport Service which instilled confidence, provided reassurance and created the space to worry, confess, laugh and relate at a time when all of those things are necessary.
Our daughter was treated by over 50 professionals. They were English, Irish, Canadian, Spanish, Venezuelan, Indian. They were white, black and brown, skinny and fat. Christian and Muslim and non-denominational. They had tough jobs which they did with pride. They had been through traumas themselves. One had given birth to a premature baby who spent 6 weeks on life support. They shared personal histories. One had run away from a small town in Northern Canada convinced that if the world was going to end in the Middle East as Saddam Hussein fought George Bush the elder, she should see a bit more it first. She found her husband that way. One was a star baker, mulling whether to take a chance with Great British Bakeoff. One used to be Joan Collins’ private butler.
The fact of this system is a marvel. A multi-national, multi-ethnic, multicultural network of care. A wildly complex orchestration of roles and technical expertise and procurement, enlivened with humility, humour and grace. Where our supposed societal divisions are nowhere in evidence, where the collective orientation is towards help, comfort, support.
What are the preconditions for a system like this? A social contract that defines health as a public good. An appreciation of the value of individuals regardless of racial, cultural and national markers. Accessible routes for people to move from place to place. A bulwark of rights and freedoms that are supported by cultural norms that command respect and are defended.
We can build things like these. They are not perfect, but they can be improved. Our daughter is alive because of them.