July marks 75 years since the NHS was founded by health secretary Aneurin Bevan on the principle of providing care free at the point of use. Today, the health service is facing the most challenging period in its history, but there is still much to celebrate, and everyone has a story to tell. Spotlight asked MPs and peers from across the political spectrum to recount their personal, and memorable, experiences of the health service.
Conservative MP for Lewes and minister for mental health and women’s health strategy
I have worked in the NHS as a nurse for over 25 years. As a child, I was inspired by my mum, who was a theatre sister. I was fascinated by what she did and how she got so much satisfaction from helping people who underwent surgery. My mum came to England to train as a nurse in her early twenties and worked for the NHS for over 30 years, so between us we have served the NHS for most of its existence. When my mum trained in the 1950s she had to live in student nurse accommodation. It was a strict regime and any student nurse who got married had to leave, as married nurses were frowned upon in those days. Years later when I trained I also lived on site, but was one of the last to do so. They demolished the nurses’ home just before I finished my training and across the country nurses’ accommodation became a thing of the past. I think my mum would be surprised to see how nursing has changed, as nurses have taken on more advanced roles. But she would recognise the passion for looking after patients, which remains at the heart of nursing in the NHS.
MP for Kingston and Surbiton and Liberal Democrat leader
As for so many others, the NHS, specifically Kingston Hospital, has been there for me and my family at the happiest and saddest times – though naturally I like to remember the former. I’ll never forget the amazing Irish midwife who somehow managed to get our 24-hour-old son to breastfeed, when we’d almost given up, making my new-dad-smile even wider. Or the Zimbabwean nurse who was so good with my wife Emily as she recovered from her Caesarean section. Or the brilliant delivery team, including the consultant anaesthetist, who helped Emily at a tricky time during the birth and let her play her favourite songs from the Soweto String Quartet and answered my daft, nervous questions.
Labour MP for Denton and Reddish and shadow minister for public health
In November 2020, my dad was diagnosed with rectal cancer. He swiftly began to receive rounds of radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester. The cancer was terminal, but the NHS did everything it could to give him – and us – more time. Dad was eventually classed as “imminently terminal” – meaning he had weeks left. My wife Allison and I took the decision to care for him from home. In reality, my job in London meant Allison had to take on most of the caring responsibilities (yes, she’s amazing). Through its network, the NHS enabled my dad to spend his last moments at home. It liaised and coordinated support with palliative care teams at Macmillan and Willow Wood Hospice. NHS district nurses – I still call them “saints in scrubs” – visited regularly. They alleviated my dad’s pain, chatted to him about the cricket and supported Allison every step of the way. My dad died on 9 July last year, surrounded by family. His final journey was peaceful and so full of love.
Labour MP for Brent Central
The NHS saved my life. It was a routine mammogram that discovered my cancer. Without that, it might not have been discovered. Thankfully, my breast cancer nurse, Amy, was there for me. She is an amazing woman and when I asked how she managed to make people feel so protected when going through the worst news, she responded that she gets comfort from the end result, when we come back looking well. The NHS caught my cancer early and the operation was a success. All the staff were professional, hardworking and hugely supportive. The staff work tirelessly for people at often the lowest points in their lives (apart from the joy of the maternity ward, of course).
Labour MP for North Durham
In October 2000, I was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation for a retrocecal appendix. It was only when I came around afterwards, minus one appendix and part of my bowel, and with a foot-long scar down my middle, that it dawned on me just how serious my condition had been. It was thanks to the NHS team at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle that I was able to stand for election the following year as MP for North Durham. Four years ago, my father was dying of terminal cancer. The support the NHS palliative care team put in place to look after him at home meant that he was able to spend his final days surrounded by those that loved him.
Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding
I was 11 when my dad told me he had blood cancer, though we didn’t call it that then – we called it leukaemia. I was very scared, mainly because Megan from Australian soap Home and Away had just died of that in Blake’s arms on the beach at sunset. Was my dad about to face the same fate, sans Blake, who if memory serves didn’t have a penchant for 50-year-old bearded socialist men? Today I am 41 and my dad, who was born before the NHS existed, is soon to turn 80 years old. He’s here thanks to the doctors and scientists at University Hospitals Birmingham. Their care and dedication to researching new treatments and technologies for use in the NHS, helped by charities like Blood Cancer UK, means that my dad has seen my children grow into adults and has for the last 30 years been able to lecture me about the appalling trash I watch on the telly. And lecture he did.
Conservative MP for Harborough and minister for primary care and public health
We’re the lucky ones. Our son Arthur is the child of our eighth (and final) go at in vitro fertilisation (IVF). We thought we’d never see him. The pregnancy test came back negative. Many people in my generation have been on the rollercoaster of hope and heartbreak that is IVF and will know exactly how that moment feels. But a few minutes later, there was the faintest hint of a line. The next day, it was a little less faint. Nine months of holding our breath followed. In the womb, Arthur was sat contentedly on his bottom, and wouldn’t be turned around by anyone. So a date was ringed in the diary for a Caesarean section at Leicester General. The amazing team there had to do both emergency and planned sections, so my poor wife had to wait, unable to eat anything all day, while emergency cases were dealt with. (A new Leicester women’s and children’s hospital is coming, which will help fix this). At last, just when we thought we’d be going home, the moment came. The number of people needed for a C-section team is huge, yet his birth was incredibly serene – like an orchestra, but ever so quiet. For us it was a miracle, a day we will never forget. For them it was just another day at work.
Baroness Nicola Blackwood
House of Lords member and chair of Genomics England
Like many rare disease patients, I was undiagnosed for 30 years. Owing to its complexity, Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) patients often face misdiagnosis and late diagnosis. I was diagnosed in 2013 and acquired a fleet of specialists. Initially, as we searched for the right treatment, I got much sicker. And trying to coordinate all the tests, appointments and new medications – while working – was impossible. I thought I would have to give up work altogether. Then the NHS stepped in. My GP, the University College London (UCL) Autonomic Unit and many others worked together to coordinate my care. Gradually, the pieces fell into place. It was by no means easy, but I am incredibly grateful that I am now in control of my condition. However, I am one of the lucky ones. That’s why as chair of Genomics England I am doing what I can to help end this diagnostic odyssey for others, too.
Labour (Co-op) MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport
[See also: The NHS: a history of political interference]
It is hard not to think the worst when you are told you have cancer. I had been sent to my GP by my other half who was worried about a bump on my arm. My GP told me not to worry about that one but spotted a bump on my face she was concerned about. A biopsy confirmed it was cancer. I am incredibly indebted to the NHS staff who identified, biopsied and operated on me. I know the pressure on primary care and acute hospitals is immense, but without exception, the care NHS staff gave me was exceptional. Deep down most of us think we’re invulnerable and impervious to harm but the blunt truth is we are not. The cancer was spotted early, and my outcomes look good. I owe that not just to the institution, but to the principles and the people of the NHS. They’re worth fighting for.
House of Lords member and minister for the Lords in the Department of Health and Social Care
My second son Sam was born in 1999 with transposition of the great arteries – in layman’s terms his heart was “plumbed up” the wrong way and he needed open heart surgery to survive. We weren’t aware of this, but fortunately a persistent midwife, unhappy with his blue skin tone, insisted on testing his blood oxygen levels before we went home. His oxygen levels were at 10 per cent – he would have died shortly without intervention. The next thing we knew we were following an ambulance to Great Ormond Street Hospital. The next month was a bit of a blur as we struggled to comprehend the situation we found ourselves in. Fortunately, Sam was in excellent hands and is now a fit and healthy 24-year-old who got engaged last week. Without the NHS, it would have been very different.
Baroness Mary Jane Watkins of Tavistock
House of Lords member
I joined the NHS on 7 May 1973 as a student nurse at the Wolfson School of Nursing at Westminster Hospital. This was excellent training. I remember going into a patient’s home and learning how to do bed-baths and dressings with no inside bathroom and little hot water. I then undertook mental health training at the Maudsley and Bethlem School of Nursing and held several clinical nursing roles before going into education. The NHS Plymouth Hospitals Trust saved my daughter when I had an emergency Caesarean following a serious form of pre-eclampsia. She is now a teacher, thanks to that team 30 years ago. More recently during Covid-19, my husband was very ill, warranting hospital admission. I left him at the doors of A&E not knowing if I would see him again. The Plymouth team provided exceptional clinical care. I cannot believe that he is now fit enough to have recently been on holiday in Guyana to visit our son.
Labour MP for Enfield North and shadow minister for primary care and patient safety
I have had both of my children delivered safely, thanks to the amazing staff at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. The NHS saved my father’s life last year when he had a stroke, and it gave my mother a new hip a year before that. There is no way my family could afford healthcare if it was not free at the point of use.
House of Lords member and former CEO of the Carers National Association (now Carers UK)
I owe my life to the NHS. Without the quick reactions of my GP, the skill of surgeons at a London teaching hospital, and the devotion of nurses during a six-month stay in hospital, I would be dead. I have also seen the support given to the millions of carers for whom I have campaigned and how life with disabling conditions has improved for so many over the 75 years of the NHS’s existence. Nonetheless in my current role as chair of the House of Lords’ special inquiry into integration between primary and community care, I do feel disappointment and even despair at the problems reported to the committee by our witnesses. Of course, some of the problems relate to shortage of resources, both of money and people, but many are simply about poor communication between branches of the service, with patients and families and, above all, between the NHS and social care. The new integrated care systems and integrated care boards are set up specifically to improve integration; we must all hope they do so, and soon.
This piece first appeared in a Spotlight special print edition on the NHS’s 75th anniversary. Read it here.