A stark account of life on the front line in the NHS

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Image: Health crisis: Huge queue of patients on trolleys  at a struggling A&E ward in the UK

Author Rachel Clarke

Book review – By Brian Pelan, VIEW editor

Your Life In my Hands by Rachel Clarke

On August 9, 1997, family members, including myself, gathered around my mother’s bed in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast as she drew her last breath. It was an incredibly sad moment and one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I was reminded of my mum’s death and our love for her whilst reading junior doctor Rachel Clarke’s new book ‘Your Life In My Hands‘.

Rachel, who sprung to prominence in the junior doctors dispute last year, recounts how she tried to give words of comfort to a mother whose daughter Sarah was dying. “When I first arrived in Sarah’s room tonight, I saw two things. First, I saw a patient who was as ill as it possible for someone to be. You know I didn’t need to be a doctor to see how unwell your daughter was. But I saw something else as well. I saw someone who was surrounded by love. You were all there, and you were giving her what she needed more than anything. You were surrounding her with love. I’ve seen many people die alone . But Sarah is not. She knows she is loved. Because of you.”

This powerful passage is only one of many in a book that documents life on the front line in the NHS. At times it reads like a war zone.

Rachel, who gave up a promising career in journalism, to study medicine, paints a grim picture of an underfunded health service struggling to cope. She tells us of her long hours on the wards, barely able to nip to the toilet, such are the demands on her and her fellow workers. “I feared, that if my hours and workload continued as they were, I might fail to cling onto the one thing that had driven me into medicine in the first place: my compassion. That or I might just crack up.”

I read this book in two days. The language is pacy, emotive and direct. It is very hard to put down.

The author reminds us of the Stafford Hospital scandal in 2005 where hundreds of people were estimated to have died unnecessarily. She quotes from a report carried out by Robert Francis QC which said: “This is a story of appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people. They were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety.”

Rachel fears that this preventable tragedy could be repeated if warnings to halt under-investment in the NHS are not heeded.

When you read this book you truly enter the NHS – warts and all. There are many instances of wry humour such as the author’s recollection of a protest sign during the junior doctors dispute which said: ‘I may not be a gynaecologist but I know a Hunt when I see one‘.

The question posed though from reading this book is how to halt the cuts and save the NHS – an institution full of countless acts of compassion.

Rachel observes that “Medicine in the UK faces its own major haemorrhage. Doctors are leaving the NHS in droves, an exodus our patients can ill afford. So too are the nurses, midwives, paramedics, physiotherapists and a huge range of other allied health professionals.”

A sense emerges from the book that if we’re not careful the NHS may die from a thousand cuts to be replaced by a private health model.

Rachel has done the NHS, its staff, users and the general public a great service by writing this very timely book.

I would urge everyone who believes in the NHS to read it.

• Your Life In My Hands by Rachel Clarke, publisher John Blake Publishing, www.johnblakebooks.com, priced £16.99

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