Wednesday, April 30, 2008

There, but for the NHS, go I

I was born with a bone condition in my feet. Not that you’d know that – obviously I have some scarring from assorted operations, but aside from that there’s very little visible evidence. Perhaps I don’t walk as straight as some, but I am completely mobile and active. The bone condition I suffered from is serious and unusual. I have only encountered three other people in my life with the same condition.

The first one I barely remember, but my parents remember it very well. I was a small child, maybe three or four. At this stage I think I was still a bit wobbly and my feet were still a bit twisted, but the early operations had been successful and all was progressing well. The surgery I had was innovative: the night I was born there was an Orthopaedic Conference in progress at a nearby town. The Doctor on call realised what I had and contacted the hotel, he reached one of the country’s leading Orthopaedic surgeons and asked if he would be interested in my case. He was, and as a result the surgical treatment I received was second-to-none and somewhat experimental.

But I digress; one morning in the park my parents and I encountered another family, with a daughter just a few years older than me, with the same condition. She was in a wheel chair and had those big, ugly black boots that make me think of Oliver Twist. I remember being quite scared at the sight of her and running away to play. My Dad remembers standing there in tears as both sets of parents realised that I was walking and she would not.

In 2002 I was living in Honduras. I used to swim every morning before work and most mornings I would be accompanied by a little girl of about 11 years old. She was a great swimmer with a bright smile and after swimming I would often play water frisbee with her and her sister. I had known this child for more than a month before I saw her out of the water and saw her feet. They were twisted in and backwards; she walked, awkwardly and painfully, on the tops of her feet. She had the same condition as me.

Did she know somehow? Did she seek me out for some reason? It certainly felt like that. One Sunday I saw her picnicking with her family. It was her father who stood up to shake my hand, then looked at my feet, pointed at my scars, pointed at his daughter and said, nervously, "same same?" I nodded and the tears welled up in his eyes. In Spanish he asked, "free hospital?" I said yes. "Where from?" he asked. "Soy Inglesa" I replied. He nodded, there wasn’t much else to say.

I still live in the developing world and get frustrated when people describe it as some tropical paradise where life is ever-easy. Free medical care is a truly breath-taking concept for those that don’t have it. The fact that economic development has enabled certain states to be so rich they can provide it is frankly astonishing to most people here. They cannot imagine such a Utopia.

This morning on my way to work I passed a beggar. I think I may have walked past her before, but I am not sure. Today, just as I was passing she stood up and it was only then that I noticed her feet: twisted inwards and backwards. She had some doctored baseball gloves tied on to protect the tops of her feet as she walked. She was an old lady, tiny in a way that only a lifetime of malnutrition can cause. An obvious lack of even the most basic medical attention (splints) had left her knees and hips crooked as well. Her legs looked contorted and ill-made. She could walk, but the pain was obviously constant and severe. She had that absent look that so many long-term beggars and sufferers have. I gave her money and she thanked me, but she looked right through me. Should I have said something? In the end, what is there to say?


  1. A moving post. I can't remember that incident from your childhood, but I can remember the operations you had...

    (nice makeover on the blog as well!)

  2. Anonymous3/5/08 17:02

    We remember it all so well.
    When you were only weeks old, before your first op at three months, we thought we ought to have a second opinion and contacted Great Ormond Street. They said that, when they needed further advice, they used your consultant.
    We were so lucky.

  3. Anonymous6/5/08 23:04

    Wow - that post was so touching. I didn't realise you'd had ops so young or that it was so serious. You're the most active person I know! Yeah - free NHS we take for granted. Makes ya think... Nx