The National Health Service, sharp vision and the death of Tinkerbell

This website is basically for news about books, for promotion of festival appearances and such like, so I don’t normally post about non-professional matters. However, I’m making an exception here with my recent experiences as an NHS outpatient. In the current climate of talking-down the NHS, we hear horror stories in the media about poor care, sad stories about long waiting lists and so on. Whenever I’m in contact with one of their services, I’m always overcome with a strange sense of dissonance between those stories and my own first-hand experiences. While I’m not exactly in a position to comment on the truth or otherwise of such media-circulated stories, I can offer my own.

I’ve had a cataract that’s been dimming vision in my right eye for some years now. At my latest (free at the point of use NHS) eye test in early November, the optician decided it was sufficiently advanced for referral. Less than two weeks later I went for a preliminary assessment by a consultant at Sunderland Eye Infirmary, at which I was booked in for ultrasound cataract surgery at the end of the month. At both of these appointments, I’d barely walked through the door and the cheery nursing staff were busily checking documentation and prepping me with various eye drops. The procedure was ultrasound removal (bizarre!) of the cataract-clouded lens and fitting with a new artificial one. It generally takes around fifteen minutes. Unfortunately there was a complication, meaning it took considerably longer (a toe-curling forty minutes or so). As the new lens was being inserted, they noticed a small tear in the lens sac and the lens had to be withdrawn. That was on Wednesday 30th. I was immediately scheduled for another appointment the following day. With thoughts of ‘NHS waiting list shock’ headlines hovering in my mind, I had a day’s anxiety about spending long months with severely impaired vision. But I needn’t have worried. At that appointment, the consultant arranged for me to have follow-up surgery for the replacement lens – on the 6th of December. On that occasion I had to wait all of ten minutes before the prepping began and I was in and out of the theatre in about twenty minutes.

With these recent close encounters of mine with the NHS, I’ve been struck throughout by the informal courtesy, good humour and calm of the working environment in the infirmary, both among staff and towards patients. And, as you will have gathered, by the absence of long waiting lists, delays and poor treatment. Sunderland Eye Infirmary is excellent, it really is.

But what’s all this about Tinkerbell? Well, an eye without a lens is a very strange thing indeed. Light hitting the retina is, obviously, entirely unfocused. What surprised me though was the way every tiny source of light – stand-by, fairy light or whatever it might be – was transformed into a sparkling, undulating disc, the size of a small coin, for all the world like Tinkerbell (as in a JM Barrie stage production, I mean, not Disney – pah!)  So between those two operations, I spent about a week surrounded by hundreds of bloody Tinkerbells. Glad to see the back of her, to be honest. Pretty, though.

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