I was around twelve years old when, one bright summer day, I accidentally walked in on my Mum getting changed. I can see it clearly even now. She stood with her back to the bedroom door, slipping the top she had chosen to wear over her head. She had a bra on, but still, I had never seen Mum without her top on before. That being said, it was not that which arrested my attention. As I stood there, I was transfixed by a huge scar that ran diagonally from her left shoulder to the right side of her waist.
“How did you get that, Mum?” I asked. She spun around, a look of surprise crossing her face. Quite obviously, she had not known I was there.
“Oh, I had an operation many years ago” she said.
“I didn’t know that,” I replied, “What kind of operation?”
She walked towards me and sat me on the bed. Sitting next to me, she told me the following story.
My Mum was born in 1939 with a hole in one of her heart valves, something which only became apparent when she was christened at two weeks old. As the vicar poured the holy water onto her head, she had a seizure; her body went completely rigid and she stopped breathing. She was rushed to hospital where, once the seizure had passed and after extensive investigation, she was diagnosed with a hole in her heart valve.
Of course, back then, medical science was not what it is today. There was no known cure for my Mum’s condition. My nanna and granddad – my Mum’s parents – were told that it was unlikely she would live into her teenage years. It was the cruelest blow. Just seven months earlier, in July 1938, my nanna and granddad had lost their nine-year-old son, Peter, to diphtheria. My Mum said that she recalled going to see him in the hospital, and telling him that he had to get better for his birthday in a couple of months. She asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and he said “I want a little sister.” When he died, just just a few days later, my nanna had no idea she was pregnant with my Mum. Very few people had a phone back then, and so, on the day he died, she had travelled to the hospital to see him, only to find his bed empty. When she asked one of the nurses where he was, the matron came over and said, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Has nobody told you? Peter…” My nanna didn’t hear anything else. She collapsed.
Now, just a few months later, she was being told that they were going to lose their little girl too.
My Mum was never well enough to go to school. She attended once when she was five-years-old, but had a seizure after being made to sit on the cold floor during assembly. After that, the doctors told my nanna that it was best if she kept her little girl at home.
As the years passed, it became all too apparent that my Mum was becoming increasingly poorly. She was breathless after walking from one room to another, her lips and fingers were blue, and her seizures were becoming ever more frequent. While my nanna and granddad expected the worst, they hoped for a miracle.
Their miracle came in two parts. The first part took the form of a surgeon by the name of Alexander Graham Bryce. He worked at Guy’s Hospital in London, and was specialised in thoracic conditions. He believed he knew how to surgically cure conditions such as the one my Mum had. I say “he believed he knew” because the operation had never been tried before. Nevertheless, it was unlikely that my Mum would ever have the operation. Although they wanted her to live, was no way that my nanna and granddad could ever afford such an expensive procedure, not on a miner’s salary.
Fate wasn’t quite done yet though, and the second part of the miracle came at government level. In 1948, Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health, spearheaded the creation of the National Health Service, which would provide free healthcare for all at the point of use.
Under the auspices of the National Health Service, Alexander Graham Bryce offered to perform the operation to save my Mum’s life. Still, however, there was a stumbling block. Mr. Bryce said that the operation would take place at Guy’s Hopsital, London. My nanna and granddad said that although they wanted their daughter to have the best chance, they could only afford a ticket for her to go to London. They couldn’t afford to with her. There was no guarantee that the operation would be a success, and my nanna said that if her daughter was going to die, she wanted to be with her; she didn’t want her dying alone, miles away from home. Upon hearing this, Mr. Bryce asked if they could get to Manchester – just a few miles away from where they lived at the time – he would travel and do the operation at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. Naturally, my nanna and granddad jumped at the chance.
The operation took place in 1948, when my Mum was nine-years-old. It took four hours, of which my nanna said were the longest four hours of her life. It was not known how to open the chest, and so to access the heart, Mr. Bryce opened up my Mum’s back and removed one of her ribs, hence the scar.
The operation was an overwhelming success (I guess I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise) and, when my Mum was ten-years-old, she attended school for the first time. In one year, she learned everything she should have learned from the age of five, including how to read and write, and after passing her exams, went to high school at the age of eleven.
In 1958, my Mum married my Dad, the love of her life. They have now been married for 59 years, and have four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
So, when it comes to admiration, I need look no further than my Mum and my nanna, two of the bravest, strongest, most courageous women it will ever be my pleasure to know. They taught me the essence of triumph over adversity, that no matter what life throws at you, miracles do happen if you just believe.
NB: I will add as a side note that the National Health Service (NHS) is currently under attack from the Secretary of State for Health. He is punishing junior doctors, accusing them of being greedy, not working hard enough, and, insultingly, lacking vocation. I say this: How dare you, Mr Hunt! Without the NHS my Mum would not have survived; she would not have had me or my brother and sisters, one of whom went on to be a nurse in the NHS! The NHS is not perfect, but it is the best we have and it is the envy of the world. You should treasure it, Mr. Hunt, treasure it and protect it, not destroy it. Who knows, it might just save the life of someone you love!