"No vases?" Sam shrieked. "You've got to get out of here. No TV. No privacy. This is a hospital, isn't it?"

Drugs and vases. For these two things, I have seriously considered abandoning a lifelong principle. I have actually considered private health insurance because, having been in hospital for the past week, you get neither enough drugs nor enough vases. Up until now I have never really understood the benefits of private medicine. What do you get apart from a swanky room? Maybe a dodgy surgeon who isn't used to performing the operation you are having? You get to pretend you are in a hotel instead of a hospital, and you get carpets. Maybe you even get clean bathrooms. But the NHS, even with the blood showing through the bandages, is not too bad, is it?

No, it is not too bad. I'm not here to tell you that it is. In many ways the care I have received has been exemplary. An emergency operation led to a full-scale ER scene, with me being wheeled through crashing doors and people being screamed at to clear the lifts while some poor bloke was given the job of trying to squash yellow jelly "blood products" into my arm. This was followed by the hi-tech violence of surgery and the low-tech business of recovery.

But it's the extras that get to you, isn't it? For me it was little things, such as waking up in a mixed ward while I was in a state that women are wont to be in after "women's troubles" - bleeding, weeping, unable to move.

The nurse was very kind. "What's the matter, luv?" he asked. "Them," I sobbed pointing out a few cardiac failures in the beds opposite. "Men."

"Oh, I know, love," he sympathised. "By the way, do you know Julie Burchill?" I did, I said, and she was lovely, for I was blissfully unaware that she was spending the week being branded by her ex-husband in the newspapers as the "world's worst mother". When the world's worst mother phoned to see if I was OK she offered to wheel me around Brighton in a bath chair - which I suppose is almost worth being ill for. By now, though, I wanted someone else, anyone at all, to feel my pain.

I know we all like nurses and think they are dreadfully underpaid, but I think that there may be something wrong with them. They have this incredibly puritanical attitude to pain relief. I don't know if it's their training. I don't know if they are told to save money by not giving out expensive drugs, but I saw the same attitude when my mother was dying of cancer and living on over-the-counter codeine tablets. Eventually we persuaded them to give her morphine and, although she had only two weeks to live, the medical people were still worried that she might be having too much of it.

For all the advances of the past 100 years, no one has come up with anything better than morphine. It doesn't relieve the pain, it just relieves the anxiety about pain, makes the pain something to think about, rather than just feel. I did finally manage to get some, you may be glad to know, after making a fuss. After you have been slit open and had bits removed - well, let me put it this way, two paracetamols just don't do it for you. They managed to call a civilised anaesthetist, who politely asked me what every girl needs to be asked now and again: "Would you consider opiates?"

So you get the drip in and it is under lock and key, so valuable it must be, but they're already concerned that you like it too much - they are keen to get you back on the old two-paracetamols regime.

Then Sam appeared with some flowers. "We don't have any vases," said Sister.

"No vases?" shrieked Sam. "No vases?" Then, "This is a hospital, isn't it?" he whispered to me. "You've got to get out of here. No vases. No TV. No privacy. What is going on?"

It was all so distressing. A nurse asked me if I wanted counselling. I said that I wanted it immediately, which seemed to shock them. They must be so used to patients refusing counselling that when you ask for it they get all flummoxed. A phone number was brought to me but, as I couldn't walk to a phone at the time, it only made me feel worse.

Lorraine dashed in: "'Oh my God! What have they done to you? You must go and see Nigel." Nigel, apparently, is a gay gynaecologist who sorts you out. But you don't get Nigel on the NHS, I'm afraid. I lay in bed and listened to doctors arguing about how their patients were going to be moved from one hospital to another: "No, I'm not going to dial 999. I'm a doctor. No, I'm not going to pay for a mini-cab out of my own money. No, I want an ambulance now."

I got moved to a ward full of other shuffling women, which was a relief; and, yes, I suppose I'm on the mend. I am not whingeing, because I don't want this to be another scare story about the NHS. For where else could you walk in off the street and receive the kind of care that our great health service routinely gives each and every one of us? Whoever we are. Whatever bloody mess we've got ourselves into. Yes, it is indeed a glorious thing, something that even the unpatriotic can feel patriotic about.

For all the scaremongering ads, the gap between private and public health care isn't perhaps as large as it seems. What induces people to buy private health insurance is exactly the kind of thing I've been talking about: privacy, TVs, painkillers, semi-edible food. These are not big things, but they are big when you don't have them. For, in some way, they are about dignity. I will stick with the NHS, for it has stuck by me. But instead of continuing to demand less and less from it and pushing patients into the hands of private insurers, we should be doing the opposite. Until we expect more of it, more of us will leave it. So, yes, I want vases to put my flowers in. Call me a dreamer, but I want vases for everyone.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?