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8 October 2016

When some dodgy kedgeree nearly left me dead, it was the NHS that saved me

I recently worked out I've been near death nine times. This incident made it ten.

By John Simpson

My hallucinations were, it seems, standard. “After all the stuff we’ve been pumping into you,” one doctor said, “it’s inevitable that you’re getting some pretty weird ideas.” I was immobile and intensely groggy, and what was left of my consciousness tried to make sense of everything, usually unsuccessfully. There was an evil mastermind lurking behind my bed and plotting my paralysis; it was only the following day that I found she was a sweet-natured nurse from the west of Ireland. At times I thought I was in a grand mosque, glittering with crystal and silver, with crowds of people praying all around me; it turned out to be the intensive-care unit of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, the place that had, over the previous couple of days, saved my life.

I once worked out, in a trainspotting way, that over the years, I had come within touching distance of death nine times from bombs, bullets and a knife. Now it’s ten. The specialist said my blood work was profoundly deranged, and two of the doctors who laboured to save me went off shift that first night convinced I was a goner.

What saved me was some wonderful medical work, and a constitution like an old boot. I’d got food poisoning in a café (from a re-reheated kedgeree) and then became dehydrated while playing cricket for the Chelsea Society. After I’d recovered, a Cambridge-educated Chinese friend of mine, a famous newsreader on Beijing television, said, “Oh God, John, kedgeree and cricket – you’re so bloody English.” The food poisoning and the dehydration had interacted badly with a pill I’d been taking for years, and I crashed out of consciousness. Living in Oxford, close to one of the world’s great hospitals, was my salvation.

At first, as I lay unconscious in the ICU, none of the doctors could work out what was wrong. Might I have upset the Russians and been slipped some radioactive poison? Could it have been an unusual form of malaria I’d picked up in Africa? Or something I’d caught on my recent trip to Syria? Had I – they apologised for asking my wife this – been taking recreational drugs? In the end, though, they homed in on the rogue medicine, traced the effects to my kidneys, and flushed out my blood to such an extent that they were worried it might finish me off.

It didn’t; and after nine more days in the John Radcliffe, during which period my wife and ten-year-old son came round each evening with a picnic and a pack of cards and played poker with me, I was allowed home. It had been as brilliant a bit of medical detection as the doctors had seen: better than anything in House. And it showed extraordinary devotion: they’d laboured away on my unconscious body for 48 hours on end. This wasn’t because I was thought to be a Z-list celebrity and so they needed a result: on the evening I was brought in, the same team at the ICU dealt with seven other crises, including a fatal car crash and a drug ­addict who had tried to jump through a glass screen. It was, quite simply, the NHS at its magnificent best.

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You’ll no doubt think I was still hallucinating, but as I lay recovering and waiting for the evening’s poker game, I started seeing definite parallels between the NHS and my employers of 50 years, the BBC: at its best, excellent, yet always kept short of cash and constantly interfered with. Each new secretary of state for health and for culture seems to come in with a determination to show that he or she can dominate the structure. At present, we have imperious demands for NHS specialists to report how much money they are making from private medicine, and for the BBC to report how much it pays its top broadcasters.

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Will the NHS be improved by revealing the pay of its specialists? Will the BBC make better programmes? Or is it all about showing the Tory party that Jeremy Hunt and Karen Bradley have a grip on the NHS and the BBC? One might expect the politician responsible for the health service or broadcasting to see his or her job as being to make health care or broadcasting as good as it could possibly be. No doubt they do – but these are spats about political control, more than improving the service.

Good broadcasting, like good health care, isn’t just about money, but neither can be done without proper funding. Last year Britain spent almost 8 per cent of its GDP on its health service; France spent just under 9 per cent, and Germany just over. Now the British level is going to drop, from 7.3 per cent of GDP this year to 6.7 per cent by 2020. France and Germany also have to make sacrifices to sustain their spending on health. Have you noticed the potholes in German streets recently, or been un-Germanically late on a train? Meanwhile, France has lost economic competitiveness in order to pay for the quality of its medical care. Cash is finite.

If I were in charge, I would run broadcasting and the health service like the Germans do, by means of civil-service teams that aren’t out to make a political future for themselves and don’t have an ideological bias. Public-service broadcasting in Germany costs more than in Britain (roughly £188 per household a year, compared to our licence fee of £145.50) and is funded by a household tax fixed by a panel of experts. The trouble is, the only people who can set up a system of this sort are the politicians – and politicians in Britain, from both main parties, have always tried to use the future of the BBC and of the National Health Service as an instrument of political control.

Still, however the NHS is funded, I am profoundly grateful for the way it saved me. And soon – this is no hallucination – I will be back on the road, going to Iraq and Russia and China to mark my 50th ­anniversary with the BBC. But I’ll be laying off the kedgeree.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. Twitter: @JohnSimpsonNews

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph