Seeing a boy die in Myanmar made me so thankful to work as a nurse in the NHS

The boy’s hands were very cold. He was about 13 or 14 but looked younger, with untidy dark hair. He had been bitten by a snake and was now severely unwell. He’d made it from his distant home to the intensive care unit (ICU) in Myanmar where we were working, but it didn’t seem like he’d make it out.

My previous job in the UK had involved assessing patients, and I couldn’t stop myself from examining him and thinking whether we could do anything more to help. It wasn’t our job to directly treat patients – a colleague and I had been sent to the ICU to assist with education and research – but I found it difficult to step back.

“Stuart, he’s not your patient,” my colleague said. She was right, but when we came back the next day his bed was empty. I wondered whether he would have survived with access to treatments we would have used at home in the NHS.

In England I had worked as a newly qualified nurse on a major trauma rehabilitation unit. We were busy and often understaffed but had modern technology, medicines and a team of specialists to help people recover their lives after car accidents, sporting injuries, assaults or falls. Four years later I was in Myanmar, where the situation was very different.

The ICU was almost always full. Many of the patients had suffered trauma but there were additional complications such as tetanus or snake bites. Families provided the personal care for their sick loved ones: washing them, emptying their catheters, mixing foods and feeding them.

Only the basic medicines and treatments were provided by the state. Families shopped for medical products in a busy market outside the hospital; if they couldn’t scrape together the money for treatments like dialysis then their loved ones had to take their chances without.

I greatly admired the resilience of these families and their dedication, but the experience made me realise more than ever how special the NHS is. When we explained to Burmese doctors and nurses that any patient, no matter their wealth, would always get the best treatment we could offer, they were incredulous. When patients in their ICU went without treatments or investigations I jealously remembered the relative ease with which I could organise x-rays or blood tests for patients at home.

In Myanmar we developed a relationship with the mother of another young boy who was suffering from tetanus. We could only speak a few words in Burmese but she would smile and gesture and ask a few basic questions. Her son had a temporary tracheostomy so he couldn’t speak but after waking he would wave at us and point at things. He used his mother’s phone to show us pictures of his cat.

He grew very thin during his long illness and endured a lot of pain, but he survived. We visited him on the rehabilitation unit, a huge basic building with a few scattered beds with thin mattresses. He was now walking again and smiled shyly to greet us.

He’d been lucky and was given a fighting chance by the tireless work of his mother and the underequipped nurses and doctors. Sickness and injury can happen to any of us and it will always be tough for relatives wherever they are. Many of the families I’d supported in England must have cursed their luck that their child had crashed their motorbike or fallen off their horse.

Funding and running a health service together recognises that this bad luck could be any of ours. It demonstrates our commitment to making sure we will all get the best chance in our times of need.

When I went back to nursing in the UK, I often remembered the boy who survived, and the other young boy who wasn’t so lucky, and give thanks for the NHS whenever I meet patients and their families to whom we are able to give the best of chances.

The failure over the last decade to support nurses and doctors has stretched our abilities and strength to their limits. Every nurse and doctor will recall with shame and pain people we weren’t able to care for as we should have.

The people working in the NHS do amazing things every day. But without commitment from the public and the government, more sick children will lie on the floors of our emergency departments. We’ll lose the precious hope that the NHS gives us.

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