Under the current economic climate – benefits crackdown, bank bailouts, BBC’s move to Salford – you might be wondering why on earth I’ve decided to dedicate a whole blog piece on the one thing that still distinguishes Britain from the rest of the Western capitalist nations, the glorious National Health Service. That’s right, despite years of thriving capitalism (it must be thriving – it only takes two hours from London to Manchester now!) Neoliberalism and whatever other ‘isms’ The Guardian is using these days, the NHS is still here – arguably not for long – but it is nonetheless still here and accessible to those of us with useless degrees and call centre jobs that don’t come with sick pay; otherwise known as ‘the working class’.
So, exactly what is my beef with the NHS? Before I share with you my personal experiences with this particular institution, just a quick reminder for those that think classism is the be-all and end-all of capitalism (i.e. Marxists, activists – whatever they want to call themselves): the NHS, as with all other institutions, is as misogynist; racist; lesbophobic; homophobic; transphobic and bi-phobic as the society it inhabits. So do not feign disbelief or shock when I, a black lesbian woman, say that the NHS is not working for me.
Three years ago, during my last year of uni after a violent break up with my then partner I moved in with some friends. One day, out of the blue (literally out of nowhere) I felt a sharp pain in my lower abdomen. I cannot describe this pain, as I have nothing to compare it to; I just know it hurt, a lot. Having suffered from heavy and painful periods from a very young age I decided to ignore the pain and treat it with a hot water bottle and liver poison i.e. Paracetamol. But the pain did not and has not stopped. The next day my friends decided to take me to the county hospital. We (a black Jew, a Jew Jew, a Jamaican, two Africans and a Bajan – you can imagine the looks we got) arrived at the hospital and it was the usual procedure: “What are your symptoms?” “How long have you been feeling like this?” etc. After about five minutes of pointless questions (pointless because there was no diagnosis) and a lot of tummy touching the ‘doctor’ gave me more liver poison and told me to come back in two hours if I was still in pain. So we hung around the hospital and sure enough after two hours of liver poison in my system, I was still in immense pain. This is where it all began to get a bit weird – actually not so much weird just racist and sexist.
After deciding that they (by this point the ‘doctor’ was so baffled he got his other useless colleagues involved) could not figure out what was wrong with me they decided to play it by race and gender: ‘Do you have sickle cell?’ ‘Is there a possibility you could be pregnant?’ (Because in Western medicine pregnancy is, of course, a disease and shooting pain in the lower abdomen is a symptom of it). I cannot recall the amount of times I have been asked in the last three years if I have sickle cell. It actually got to a point where I was wondering if indeed I did have sickle cell and that it just wasn’t showing up in ANY of the numerous tests they did for it. Back to the story, since they could not figure out what was wrong with me they decided I needed to stay in hospital. After a lot of probing, liver poison, tummy touching, sickle cell testing and god knows what else, I was discharged (see how all institutions use the same language) and given liver poison to take at home.
Oh, I forgot to mention since I have ‘female’ genitalia they shipped me off to the gynaecologist even though the pain was not near my reproductive organs. So, this pattern goes on for three years in different hospitals in different cities with the same questions: ‘do you have sickle cell?’ ‘Is there a history of sickle cell in your family?’ Even if I did have sickle cell or a history of sickle cell in my family it still would not explain the pain. ‘Is there a possibility you may be pregnant?’ Of course, they assume I sleep with men or that I have been raped and ended up pregnant as a consequence hence why I have this inexplicable pain. It started in May 2009; it is now June 2012 and I still have no diagnosis.
”Madame, you seem to be suffering from Femalenegroitis”
‘Save our NHS’
For the white liberals reading this you’re probably thinking about the many NHS-bashing articles and programmes you’ve seen where doctors mis-diagnose or completely miss serious illnesses and you are probably going to liken my experience to that. Nope, that is not what this is. My experience is an example of the systematic racism women of colour face on a day-to day-basis. If I was a white man firstly, I would not have been asked about any history of diseases that only white people get; secondly, I would not have been asked if I was pregnant nor would I have been shipped off to a special department that deals only with the male organs. The NHS is just as fucked up as all the other government institutions. I commend all those who go on the marches, petition etc. Kudos to you for fighting for free and accessible healthcare. BUT, as long as we continue to live in this white capitalist patriarchal society, we – women of colour – will continue to be ignored and get screwed by the system. This has always been the case.
I don’t want to talk about slavery because it’s a bit boring now but a quick Google search of how black women’s (and men’s) bodies were used for ‘medical’ experiments shows the apathy we receive from (white) doctors, is a continuation of this deeply rooted racism. As for me, my latest GP is a black man (yay!) And so far he hasn’t mentioned anything about sickle cell or pregnancy (double yay!) We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime I have compiled a small list of tips to help you when using the NHS:
1. Always take someone with you to an appointment: one of the most dangerous things about the NHS is that the people using the service are afraid of challenging what they’ve been told by their doctor or GP. Doctors are in a position of power and it is very easy for them to intimidate people by using lots of fancy jargon that they know people won’t understand. Having someone else with you (white allies are handy for this) makes it a lot difficult for them to do this.
2. Prescriptions are not always the answer: What doctor’s appointment would be complete without a prescription right? Before buying any prescription be sure to ask as many questions as possible (What are the active ingredients? How does it work? Etc.) And then go home and Google it! Stay away from the creamy crack (not hair relaxer) – Aqueous Cream and E45 – doctors love giving this out, every black household has had Aqueous Cream in it at some point, we need to break this cycle – there are alternatives.
3. Shop around: If you find that you are getting poor treatment from your GP or surgery then change. Again, the internet is here so use it. You can find reviews of NHS surgeries – don’t stick with your GP just because it’s close by.