What an extremely odd experience watching Save My Child was. It was the tale of two families’ attempts to raise money for operations and therapies abroad for their children that the NHS does not fund.
Teenager Mia has scoliosis and wears a painful, restrictive back brace 23 hours a day. She has a year to wait before she qualifies for the operation to realign and fuse her spine that is the standard NHS treatment for her condition. She and her mother Jo want her to have a new procedure (known as VBT) sooner, in Turkey. It will cost £32,000 and, having reined in the family spending long ago, they now set up a JustGiving page and embark on a fundraising programme full of coffee mornings, sponsored runs and other activities to amass the rest of the sum before Mia’s curvature becomes too pronounced for this operation to help.
Six-year-old Pranav has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Last year, the NHS started offering pioneering treatment for some CP patients, with a view to enabling them to walk, but Pranav was considered too severe to benefit. His parents Usha and Ravi could have the surgery performed privately in the UK, but have decided they want to take him to America, where it can be done by the man who developed the procedure. The operation and the ongoing therapy afterwards will cost £100,000.
So, that’s the set-up. The oddness sets in now, as nothing else happens. The set-up simply plays out. The growing feeling of pointlessness and suspicion of exploitation is the only real difference as the hour wears on. There is no tension or jeopardy.
Jo books Mia’s operation before they raise the full £32,000 but will sell her business to meet the target if needs be – a huge thing for them, of course, but in televisual terms it is useless – because we will be long gone by the time the fallout from that would be felt. And Usha is not very good at fundraising (people do not appreciate that you need balls of steel to raise money even for the very best cause) and fails to sell enough advance tickets to a Bollywood ball. They change the model to pay-what-you-think-it’s-been-worth-on-the-night and do fine.
They are also able to front the bulk of the £100,000 themselves, which suggests that if push comes to shove they could find the £10,000 still needed with eight weeks to go before Pranav’s operation.
There are any number of questions that could have been raised – and some you could argue absolutely should have been raised, if the show hoped to avoid the queasily manipulative air that hung over the entire hour, refusing to disperse. Such as: how justified are the families in seeking their alternatives? For the avoidance of doubt, this is not to cast any aspersion on these families, who want the best for their children and will have been deeply informed about their conditions – but it is the responsibility of the programme-maker to not leave so many ends hanging loose that you cannot see the picture properly.
There needed to be more interrogation of the NHS and its decision-making processes. The emotive stories of the families versus a couple of bald summaries of the health service’s position (“It says there is no evidence that VBT is better than fusion and that there may be unknown long-term effects and possible immediate complications”, for example) created the impression that the NHS was the bad guy. Surely the true merits of each are at the very heart of the matter? Are UK health chiefs penny-pinching? For fun, or because they are massively underfunded? Or are others offering vulnerable families false hope? I’m not pre-supposing the answers, but wishing the questions had been asked. They would have added some heft to a very underpowered hour.
It could have gone deep in a number of other ways, too. Pranav’s case would have been the perfect lens through which to see how much of disability is socially constructed. If we had a truly accessible environment, how much of the constrictions posed by wheelchair use and the stigma of not being able to walk disappear?
In the event, however, and lovely though it was to see Mia and Pranav’s post-operative delight and improvements, it was an airy nothing of a programme that seemed almost wilfully to ignore the many opportunities it had to go deeper or wider on any number of issues. Bad show.