People's History of the NHS

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  • MAR

A last word on ‘First Memories’

by Roberta Bivins

Six weeks ago, we asked you to share your first memories of the NHS with us – many stories, tweets and comments later, you have already done so much more. Your stories, and those of your families, have captured the National Health Service’s first moments (thanks especially to the Macbeth family, and retired nurse Helen Gallacher, who have shared striking memories of training and practicing medicine before and during the Second World War and in the the fledgling NHS). You have told us about the Service’s more recent past as well: early hospital visits, vaccinations, check-ups and childhood accidents.

In your memories we can begin to see some interesting patterns developing. Several of you recalling the first decades of the NHS, for example, have explicitly mentioned cost – not what younger users might expect in memories of a Service famously ‘free at the point of need’. But as one member told us, in these early years, doctors sometimes told their patients very directly what their treatment cost the Service, as part of urging them to comply with medical regimens. In this case at least, the technique worked: this storyteller reported being ‘in awe that the medicine cost so much but we were able to access it because of the NHS without having to find the money that day.’ The message – and the awe – stuck in her mind, and she still remembered it more than six decades later. Cost-saving, but easily recognised ‘NHS specs’ are clearly just as memorable, but perhaps not as attractive an aspect of ‘free’ health care. Another member recalled his family’s decision in 1962 to reject free frames, despite the cost of the alternative: ‘my parents insisted on paying for “better” frames when I could have had NHS frames for free… It was bad enough being teased at school … it would have been much worse if I’d been wearing NHS specs.

Others have told us about the NHS as a space for new encounters, both medical and personal. For some older members, it was first place where they met people from other ethnic groups: ‘unbelievably impressive’ black nurses created strong memories for one young patient in the 1970s. But sometimes your memories of the medical encounter itself are considerably less clear: you have also told us about the ‘blur’ of ‘memories of doctors and hospitals, of consultants and blood tests and clinics’. Some of you have described your interactions with the NHS, tellingly, as ‘a long and never ending relationship’ – a phrase that resonates with claims that the NHS is part of our lives, almost a member of our families. Others, those with ‘NHS in the Family’ for instance, have talked about being ‘surrounded by it’, and have described the NHS as ‘something that really sums up the UK’.

Intimate and enduring as your relationships with the NHS may be, it is not always your favourite ‘relative’ (so to speak)! If you care for an older person or live with a chronic condition like diabetes, you may remember disjointed care and difficult regimes – but also your pride in maintaining those regimes no matter how meticulous and challenging. And sometimes you – and your parents – have had to ‘persuade’ NHS gatekeepers to provide the health services you have needed.

As a whole, your stories and comments have tracked technological and cultural changes in the Service. Through your eyes, and your memories, we have seen the breadth of the NHS, too: you have remembered ‘firsts’ from the GP surgery to the School Medical Service, and from the hospital to public health campaigns. In your photos, and in wonderful artefacts like Dr Macbeth’s casebooks, we are seeing both new and familiar aspects of the NHS. While we are now – inspired in part by your collective fascination with needles! –  asking you about vaccination, all your memories of the NHS (first, last, and in between) are welcome here, so keep on sharing. Thank you!

 

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