My (positive) experience with the National Health System

Note: All St Andrews students are registered with the National Health System (NHS) during the first week (called Fresher’s week), the system allows for completely free medical service for students and for that reason is fantastic. 90% of the heartache suffered in this post was because of my own stupidity and I in no way think poorly of the NHS.

Since I was supposed to be posting for the past few months, my first few posts are going to be some of what I believe to be my more interesting and unique experiences since arriving in StAs about two months ago.

About two weeks ago, during a routine workout for rowing, I somehow injured myself somewhere in my neck. I still don’t know what the problem is, but every time my heart beat rose above a certain level I would get a really bad headache. This problem was severe enough that I decided I needed to go to the doctor and so I phoned my local GP Tuesday morning and an appointment is made for Tuesday afternoon. I recount my story to the doctor and he tells me that he will get in contact with some specialists and let me know what the problem is.

The next day my GP calls me and lets me know that he has made me an appointment at Ninewells Hospital at 10:00 the next morning for “scans” to ensure that nothing has gone airy in my head. He, understanding that I am a American student, tells me to go to the bus station and ask for directions from the counter and away I would go. So, knowing that the bus would take at least an hour, I set my alarm for 8:30 the night before and go to sleep. This is where the fun begins…

Cue waking up the morning of my appointment. I look over to my clock and it reads 9:30… apparently my trusty iPhone alarm isn’t so trusty. With a constant stream of strong, mostly profane, encouragement issuing from my mouth I get dressed and ready for the doctor. At the door I run my usual keys, wallet, phone, and consider for a moment to bring my book bag but, no, I figure it’ll be a quick scan, no need to bring any reading or studying materials. Half walking/half running down the street to the bus station, I pull up to the bus station counter to see that there is absolutely no one inside. Well, they made smart phones for a reason. I pull out my trusty iPhone and in minutes have an itinerary set to get me to the hospital even if a little over an hour late.

At this point I’m stressed, still groggy, and not at all sure where I am going. I locate the hospital on my phone and decide that I’ll get off at a stop near the hospital and walk the rest of the way. The bus finally takes me about as close as it looks like its gonna go and I hop off and hoof it through yards, apartment complexes and parking lots to reach the hospital. After about a 20 minute walk I finally arrive at just over an hour and a half late from my original appointment, and oooh yeah that bus would have gotten me here if I had just stayed on for five more stops.

Whatever. I walk into the hospital and am just purely overwhelmed. The main entrance reminds me of an airport and I meekly pull out a scratch piece of paper on which I’ve scribbled the only information I have: “10:00, assessment ward, Ward 15.” I follow the signs down to Ward 15 hoping to God that I didn’t somehow misinterpret my GP over the phone, and not knowing what else to do I go to the nurses’ station and ask for the assessment ward. By some miracle my name is written upon their little white board and for the first time of the day I feel as if I have done something right.

Eventually, after a few minutes of waiting, a very well dressed man comes up to me and asks “Who are you?” For some absurd reason I got the feeling of celebrity as I said “I’m Andrew Schwieder,” pointing to the little white board that declared my fame. I am taken inside the ward, which could hold about six patients at a time and in due time the same man comes to me and asks for my symptoms. I recount my story and he immediately hits me with “This sounds like a bleed in your brain we will need to keep you overnight.” Um, what?? I thought I was here for some scans, out of here in time to make it to my 2:00 class. Nope. They want to give me a CT scan and then WHEN that turns up negative give me a lumbar puncture. When trying to persuade the doc to give me the scans and then let me go home while awaiting the results he tells me that I need to be kept under constant supervision because a bleed in the brain could result in my paralysis or even death. Fantastic. A long hospital stay with nothing to keep my mind off of my possible impending doom.

Now, remember, I had my phone, wallet, and keys. My phone is already down to 53% power and I turn it off to save power. There are no magazines, books, or TVs to hold my attention. With nothing better to do, I take to watching the heart monitor of the patient across from me whose irregular heart beat actually made the jumping of numbers from 90 bpm to 130 at least somewhat entertaining. Eventually a porter with a wheelchair shows up to take me to the scanner, apparently a hospital policy with people with suspected head injuries but one that makes me feel as if I could be on the way out at any moment.

After the scan I am taken back to the assessment ward just in time for lunch. I initially decline my sandwich and snowball being served by a good-natured nurse. “Are you sure? They’re free.” Oh my god she’s right. ALL of this is free, already paid by the taxpayers of the UK. Even, I, as a foreign student, that have paid no taxes to the British government except for the negligible amount in sales tax, is being allowed to get all of this treatment for free.  For some reason, that completely changed my mindset, after that I just accepted that the doctors and nurses must only be doing what they thought was right since they were actually losing money by having me there.

So I was admitted into the hospital to await my CT scan results which eventually came in as negative. Fantastic, now they get to stick a needle in my back. For those who have had a lumbar puncture before you know what an exceedingly awkward experience it can be, more awkward than painful to tell the truth. Curled up in the fetal position for about twenty minutes, I was reminded of a trip to the barber as the doctors asked me questions about how I liked St Andrews, my classes, etc. even as they drained a little bit of cerebral fluid out of my spinal cord. After which I had to lie flat on my back for about an hour, no trouble there, not like I had anything to do anyway.

Sleep that night was broken up into two hour segments by the night nurse coming by to take my heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature. Finally the morning came and so did my results. Completely negative. My diagnosis? “Muskuloskelatal pain headache.” I’m not going to question it if it means that I can leave. I hop on the bus for another hour and a half long trip that was decidedly more relaxing than on the way to the hospital. I get back to St Andrews and go straight to Subway. The food at the hospital was free but it did leave something to be desired.

So my story did have a happy ending. After explaining my situation to my Spanish professor he arranged an alternative date for my test. I even received an email from Student Support Services at St Andrews making sure that I was ok over seeing I had been to the hospital. I may not have found out exactly what was wrong with my head aches, but at least they were able to rule out me keeling over at any time. And, most importantly, it was all free, gotta love that NHS.