People's History of the NHS

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  • APR

Five Questions About the NHS, and What We Learn from ‘First Memories’

by Roberta Bivins

Since we launched our People’s History of the NHS website, we have been collecting your first memories of the National Health Service. We have written about some of your stories here,  and here. Those of you who have joined us as members can read even more first memories in the Members’ Area. In fact, your memories have been so rich and revealing that when we started working with the BBC and 7Wonder to create a ‘People’s History of the NHS’ series for television, we encouraged them to collect first memories too. It was pretty hard to choose, but we have picked out just THREE of these amazing memories to share with you on our BBC tab, here.  Watching them, we realised that we want even more: we want and need yours! These memories, each one a snapshot of a moment that has stayed with someone, sometimes for decades, help us piece together a a better picture of how the NHS was actually experienced — the good, the bad, and the profoundly unexpected. So once again, we invite you to tell us your first memory of the NHS.

Just to get us started, it seems only fair that I should tell you mine: I came to Britain from the US in my twenties as a work permit holder. A month or two after I arrived, I got a letter from my doctor at home; she told me that I needed to have a particular health check right away. I knew there was a GP in my area, but  I hadn’t registered; indeed, I hadn’t troubled the NHS in any way, mostly because I couldn’t QUITE believe that I, an American, could just walk in and get free healthcare. So I waited until I had saved up roughly the cost of the test I needed (or at least what I knew it would cost in the USA — about £200). Then I went to see the GP, chequebook in hand, but a bit nervous that perhaps I had not saved enough. Before I sat down for the examination, I asked how much it would be — and she just laughed. Of course, it was free.

Lots of Americans living and working in Britain will have a first memory very much like mine; I have laughingly swapped these stories with American friends and co-workers many times before. But every time I do, I think of Nye Bevan (well, I am a historian of the NHS, after all!). In 1952, when the NHS was still in its infancy, and just after he resigned from the Government which had introduced fees to the fledgling Service, he published a book of essays called In Place of Fear. And that is where the NHS stands for me — and maybe for you too: it is a bulwark against fear and uncertainty. I grew up in a country where medical bills cast a long shadow, one that left families in darkness even before the costs had been incurred. That’s why I delayed getting the test my doctor told me I needed urgently. I was afraid of the cost. The NHS can’t save anyone from the fear of ill-health (though Bevan hoped it might), but it does mean none of us must worry about how we will pay for care we need. I remember that doctor and her infectious laughter with every payslip and every ballot paper.  The NHS isn’t free — but it frees us from fears that affect every American I know.

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