Monday, 27 October 2014

I can see clearly now ...

With a new book to plug (Burke and the Bedouin is now out on Kindle), now might seem an odd time to be writing a post that has nothing to do with my books at all, but please bear with me.

Both my mother and my sister suffered from glaucoma, so I'm probably more careful about getting my eyes checked than most. Because of the family history, I don’t pay anything for a thorough examination every year.

Something over a year ago, I was told that I had the beginnings of a cataract in my right eye. Both the optician and I were surprised: I'm not that old. But it was, she assured me, just the beginning. It might not cause a problem for years.

A year, later, though, it was getting worse. I could still see well enough for daily life. (Unusually, the other eye was fine.) But the sight in my right eye was deteriorating quite fast. The optician suggested I consider surgery.

There was a hiccup at this stage, because the National Health Service isn’t set up for younger people with a problem in one eye. I didn't actually need surgery. Having just one eye (and that one short-sighted) wasn't crippling, just inconvenient. But I went to my doctor and pointed out that I have an active lifestyle and two eyes are useful. Because I was younger and the eye was deteriorating, it would need surgery eventually. Surely it was better to have it done now.

Luckily, my doctor agreed and referred me to an eye clinic. Again, I was lucky in living close to a specialist eye hospital. A few weeks after I had seen my doctor, I visited a consultant at the hospital who agreed that surgery was appropriate.

Last week, I attended the hospital and, a couple of quite scary, but painless, hours later, I walked out, cataract free.

As I write this, there’s a certain amount of discomfort, which is already diminishing. More to the point, the screen is back to being a convenient distance away and I am writing without spectacles.

It’s true what they say: sight deteriorates slowly, and you only realise how much once you get it back.

I know I have a lot of American readers on this blog, so I need to point out that this entire process has, literally, not cost me a penny. I had a cataract, which can happen to anyone. The NHS fixed it, as it would do for anybody in the country. That is one of the things I have paid taxes for all my life.

Surgery – even minor surgery like this – is always a concern. There are lots of things that you worry about. Whether or not you can afford it shouldn't be one of them.

There is a lot wrong with the NHS. There is room for improvement. But the basic idea of a system that heals the sick, which we all pay for through our taxes, is really important. There have been lots of attacks on the NHS lately, and many of us wonder if some of this is motivated by a political desire to change the basic model of UK health care: universal medical treatment, free at the point of delivery. It’s easy to forget, as we go about our daily lives, just how important this is. It’s amazing how quickly the need for medical care can change your perspective.

So, I’d like to finish by saying three things.

Firstly (though I doubt they’ll see this): a big thank you to my optician, my GP, my surgeon, the nurses, and everybody else who made this as easy as possible, and thanks to whom I now have two good eyes.

Secondly, to readers in the UK: however fit you are, however young you feel, one day you, or someone you love, will need medical care. When this happens, you don’t want to be worrying about whether or not medical insurance will cover it. (I doubt it would have covered me, as my problems didn't even meet written criteria for the NHS – hence my pleading to my GP.) The NHS is a wonderful British institution. Be prepared to fight for it when politicians threaten it.

Finally, to my US friends: free medical care does not make this a communist country. Yes, it puts up taxes – but it costs much less per patient treated than most other health care systems (and much, much less than the US system). Looking after sick people is something that a civilised society just does. I think that those who see it as a threat just can’t imagine how much better life would be if you had it. Like my newly restored vision, it’s a shock how much difference it makes once it’s there. Don’t be afraid of socialised health care.

Next week I’ll be back to writing about 19th century history. Until then, take care and (if you have been) thanks for listening.


  1. Tom, I'm voting for you next Tuesday.

    Sigh. I love my country, but the perfectly evil political response to Healthcare Reform shames us all before the world.

  2. I grew up in the US - horrible healthcare system. We couldn't afford anything - and when my sons were born prematurely, we ended up in debt for over 100k. It took us 20 years to pay off - forget buying a house or getting a loan. We couldn't even file for bankruptcy - it was a nightmare. In France, it's much better. My husband had his heart valve replaced for free. I broke my elbow and it cost me 25$ all told. Nothing is perfect - but affordable healthcare is a must.