We’re going to need a bigger bus

No tattoo photos, but here’s Noel with cats

Noel came back from the hospital the other day with a tattoo, actually, that’s not true, he had four of them. They aren’t anything fancy like ‘I luv Anne’ or ‘Programmers do it in code’. Just four tiny blue dots to mark the spot where the death ray will zap the Bastard Cancer ™

OK, not a death ray exactly, but a linear accelerator, which will dose that damned tumour with radiation five days a week for five weeks. Take that, Bastard Cancer.

We started the journey on June 25 with just five words from the consultant, ‘It’s bad news, I’m afraid’. It’s a journey I travelled more than 30 years ago with my mum, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. What a contrast, then it was all about the treatment, not the patient, no flexibility, no information, it was done to you, not with you. It was a lonely, miserable, distressing, uncomfortable journey for everyone involved.

What a contrast in care and treatment today, we’re on first name terms with everyone, except the consultant of course, a bit like teachers, they don’t have first names. Yes, it’s a journey we’d rather not take, but we really feel that NHS clinicians and all the other staff are in the bus with us rather than giving our broken-down car a bit of a push.

Then there’s the support from friends and family, which has been overwhelming, but in a good way. I’ve been humbled by the kindness of others, from messages of support and sharing of experiences to offers of help and food, including broccoli soup and squash, Bastard Cancer hates brassicas. Suddenly the journey doesn’t feel as long and dark and lonely as it did, I think we’re going to have to get a bigger bus.

A hospital for introverts?

I’m an extrovert, I know you’ll find it hard to believe, but there we are. I love people, I love being with people, I get my energy from people, some say I’m a tad loud, can’t see it myself. Noel, on the other hand, is an introvert, if he spends too much time with too many people, it saps his energy, he likes his own space and a bit of peace and quiet.

He was recently in hospital and I can tell you, it’s not a place for introverts to thrive. Nothing is quiet, clatters and bangs bounce off the walls as trolleys full of tubes, plugs, cups and flasks of weak tea are pushed around and occasionally come into contact with a wall or door.

He was reclined on a squeaky bed with a cacophony of beeps and bells from the kit attached to him and his three wardmates. The loud over-enthusiastic exclamations of daytime TV was punctuated with the cheery chatter of staff as they went about their very important business of looking after patients. What’s an introvert to do?

Noel has the answer. An Introvert Ward, similar to a quiet coach on the train. Each bed would have a ‘DNT’ (Do Not Talk) sign, on threat of being transferred to the Extrovert Ward where the TV would be always turned up to 11. Equipment would be wrapped in (sterile) cotton wool , everyone would whisper, including the consultants. OK, not the consultants, they can do what they want, and food and drink would come in bamboo cups – no plastic here, we’re very sustainable on the Introvert Ward. I’m putting together my PhD proposal as I write, though I may be disqualified for being too loud.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying Noel has cancer or, to give it its full name, Bastard Cancer. We have another name for it, but it’s not for delicate ears. It was a shock and has been the worst few weeks of our lives, bastard cancer. As an introvert, he finds it draining to tell people this news, as an extrovert, I offered to blog about it.

He’s had surgery and has been home a couple of weeks under strict instructions not to drive or lift anything heavier than a full kettle. That means no digging in the allotment, as you can imagine, he’s gutted about that! He starts chemoradiotherapy soon, prior to more surgery. I’ve told him he’d better be sorted for the ski season, he says he fully intends to.

We have the best health service in the world, he has already benefited from the expertise and dedication of an amazing consultant who has overseen his (and I assume others’) care while on holiday. Noel agrees he can talk as loud as he wants, anytime. The healthcare system is very well joined up, quite simply the best and you can quote me on that. If only the hospitals had Introvert Wards.

Squeamish about screening?

It’s one thing to run a publicity campaign encouraging people to take up the NHS offer of free screening, it’s something else to actually take that test yourself. Especially when poo is involved.

We woman are used to screening. Invitations for cervical smears start in our mid-20s and go on until our mid-60s. Breast screening starts at 50 and continues until 70. Not everyone takes up the invitation, about 74 per cent for cervical screening and 71 per cent for breast screening, even though it’s free, even though it could save lives.

I’ve worked in and for the NHS for many years and have spent hundreds of head-scratching hours looking for inspirational and exciting ways to persuade people that being intimately prodded and poked isn’t that bad after all and that squeamishness could be overcome for the greater good and, more importantly, likely avoidance of something much nastier and the lengthy treatment it involves.

Screening for bowel cancer starts at 60 (50 in Scotland) and has an uptake of just under 60 per cent, which is pretty rubbish really. I mean, why wouldn’t you do something quick and simple if you could? Because poo, that’s why. Poo. Ewww. We’re squeamish and British and don’t like to talk about it let alone mess with it.

In one NHS organisation, we came up with the idea of getting the Bard of Yorkshire, Ian McMillan, to write Poo Sticks, a humorous poem to encourage uptake of bowel cancer screening. It definitely made a splash, which is much better than a plop……

I was good at managing the message for others, telling them THEY should take the test, what was the problem, eh? But then that envelope came through my letterbox, the first envelope that is. It’s the one that warns you a second one is coming, and you shouldn’t ignore it, or be put off. The second envelope contains a kit, something that looks like an advent calendar with just three windows and definitely no chocolate.

Despite my preaching and persuading, it took me a month to steel myself to do it. The test isn’t really that simple, in fact it’s a test of three movements, three bowel movements. Each of the three windows has two little windows inside. One movement, two samples, collected with two cardboard sticks, poo sticks. There will be no further details on this matter, except to say that even though it was a faff, and a pooey faff at that, I did it, stuck it in the envelope and off it went. I’m glad I’m not the postie who delivers to Poo Collection Central.

I can understand why people are squeamish about this test, I certainly was. But prevention is better than cure and definitely better than dealing with a a cancer that could have been caught early and dealt with. Within a couple of weeks, I had a letter telling me that everything was OK and that was it….until the next time. At least when I get the next one, I’ll know exactly what to expect.

I love the NHS. I love parkrun. So there.

Thanks to Julie Haddon for the photo

This week’s parkrun was a birthday celebration for a 70-year-old, a special  septuagenarian who has a unique relationship with everyone in the country, the National Health Service. Looking out over our 570 parkrunners, there were more scrubs and white coats than you could shake a stethoscope at – and there were quite a few of those too.

There was a whole lot of parkrun love for the NHS, including Diane, one of our regulars,  who was born the same year as the NHS. Diane loves parkrun and expects to run her 400th by the end of the year, joined by her family and friends. She also loves the NHS with a passion, so much has been done for her and her family.

Personally, I think the NHS is the best in the world and will happily argue that case with anyone over a pint and a pie. Look at the big picture, we have a healthcare system that is free at the point of delivery, it’s there for us. Not many other countries in the world can say that, or if they can, there’s a cost involved, for those who can afford it.

However, the not-quite-as-big picture shows that like any 70-year-old, it’s creaking a little. There’s just over 65 million of us to look after, an increase of 20 million or so from 1948. And, thanks in part to the excellent work of the NHS, we’re living longer, surviving diseases that at one time were not survivable.

But no-one lives forever and as we get older, and we’re all getting older, we’re likely to need more care, and that is a huge cost both in terms of people power and money. The NHS does its best for us, it really does, but quite rightly it’s looking to us to take responsibility where we can. You know the kind of thing, eat more of the things that are good for us, drink less of what’s bad for us, keep fit and active, and hang around with friends. Let’s face it, why wouldn’t we want to do that!

For me, that’s where parkrun is a great friend to the NHS. Every Saturday, hundreds of people come along to Woodhouse Moor  , just one of more than 500 parkruns in the UK, to run jog or walk 5km around a park that was created by the Victorians to be green lungs for the city. Thanks to a gang of volunteers who gladly give up their time, they can do this for free. Then there’s the post-parkrun coffee and conversation which ranges from general chit-chat to the true superiority of Yorkshire and Yorkshireness in practically everything, but that’s another blog.

A friend who works for NHS England in the department which is promoting and supporting self care asked me if parkrun was the Next Big Thing for health and wellbeing. Definitely, I said. Not only does it help people like me keep fit and keep sane for the price of a pair of running shoes and a coffee, it also helps a very special under-pressure 70-year-old to do its job just that little bit better. Then everyone wins, don’t they?

I’ve run more than 250 parkruns, volunteered nearly as many times and am Event Director at Woodhouse Moor. I’ve also worked for many years in the NHS as a manager. Oh, and did I mention, I’m from Yorkshire? 

Physician, heal thyself..with a parkrun


Doctors are very good at getting us to look after ourselves, giving us all kinds of checks and tests, particularly when we reach a certain age, measuring this and that (though not the other) and pointing out that we should probably eat less and drink more, water that is.

But who advises doctors to look after themselves? In the case of the local family doctors (GPs) where I work, it’s other GPs, and a new campaign has started with a parkrun. Alistair, our Director of Primary Care, who is also a GP, came up with Healthier Healthcare, an initiative to encourage GPs and their staff to look after themselves, so they are then in a better place to look after us. And let’s face it, we’re more likely to take advice on fitness from those who clearly look after themselves.

With my parkrun connections, I suggested he and a few colleagues come along one Saturday morning and either volunteer or run, they are both just as good for wellbeing after all. With just over 300 runners this week, more than a quarter put their hands up when asked who worked in the NHS. There’s a lot of us! For some it was their first time at a parkrun. One colleague brought her teenage daughter, who was so taken with the 5km run, she wanted to come back for our special Christmas Day run. A GP colleague who was a first-timer was amazed, he says he’ll be back and will recommend it to his patients too.

Next up for Healthier Healthcare is more running (including parkruns) and the Leeds Half Marathon, with staff hopefully taking part in either the corporate relay or running the whole thing. I’ve a sneaky feeling I may be in one of the teams, it will be the slow one!


Thinking inside the box

Thinking inside the giant box of paracetamol

From the steady stream of runny noses, sniffles, sneezes and, let’s be honest, strings of sticky snot, it’s pretty obvious winter’s well on the way. And for those of us working in NHS communications it’s the annual challenge of coming up with new ideas to help people help themselves.

It’s a time of year when GP surgeries have standing room only and hospital beds are permanently warm as one patient is discharged just in time for the arrival of the next one. So if there’s any way of stopping folk    getting ill in the first place, or treating their minor illnesses at home, well, we’ll all be happy.

But each year there has to be new and different ways of saying what is effectively the same message and it’s getting harder to come up with new ideas. Thank goodness for thinking outside the box with a bunch of creatives. Unfortunately for one of those creatives,it meant actually getting inside the box.

The idea was simple, give the man and woman on the street a good idea of what they need to get them healthily through the winter, and do it with a bit of imagination. Enter the giant box of paracetamol and a huge prescription for a family medicine kit. Unfortunately for a couple of my colleagues, they were the ones   who had to get in the box, the boxes they’d put together with gaffer tape and sticky-back plastic. Still, we’d had a lot of fun doing it.

The giants boxes hit the streets of Northampton, Corby and Milton Keynes, handing out a winter checklist suggesting everything from antiseptic to thermometer to help treat common ailments. Let’s hope they work!