When I lived in the Old Person Capital of Just Outside of London (not an official title), going to the doctor was a nightmare. Or, more accurately, going to the doctor was a thing that never happened. It wasn’t that I was always healthy. I eat far too many biscuits for that to ever be the case. But getting hold of a doctor was a nightmare.
The longest wait I ever had for an appointment was just over six weeks, by which time I’d cancelled it anyway because, of course, whatever was wrong with me had stopped being wrong. The only time I didn’t have to wait at least a month for an appointment was the one time I had to go in as an emergency. Even that didn’t happen without my hiding in a toilet cubicle at my then-office and giving a tearful whispered description of a very dramatic rash over the phone to a receptionist until she relented and booked me in to see someone. (Just so we’re clear, whatever kind of rash you’re thinking about, it wasn’t that kind of rash.)
One day, I called to make an appointment and kept getting kicked out of the automated phone system. I had to talk to a real person (my living nightmare) who told me that I’d been deleted from the system. I had to go in to my doctor’s surgery of twenty years and sign up as a patient all over again.
“It’s probably because you never come in,” the receptionist told me as she handed me another form. And there was me thinking that made me the dream patient.
I should mention at this point that I’m a massive fan of the NHS. Having lived in America and worked in a job where people would frequently call me with their health insurance woes, I’m fully aware of how lucky we are to have it for the short amount of time we have left with it. Ooh, satire.
It’s just that where I used to live has an incredibly high population of elderly people who, aside from driving up house prices and taking all of the good seats on the bus, inevitably wound up seeing a lot of our local doctors. I also left very early to go to work and got back long after the surgery had closed, so I was’t exactly helping matters.
However, a bout of Easter egg-induced stomach ache over the weekend reminded me that I needed to register with a doctor in Cornwall. The thought depressed me so much that I had to crack on with another egg. But I am a grown up. So, the next morning I woke up extra early because I promised myself I could have Coco Pops if I did, and I left the house in time to sign up at my local surgery before work.
I filled in all of the forms, and even told the truth about my alcohol intake because, like I said, I am a grown up now, and grown ups don’t lie about how much wine they put away while watching Countryfile. I was thrilled to find out that I’m officially ‘Not a Problem Drinker’. That’s going straight on my Linkedin profile.
When I gave the clipboard back to the receptionist, she read my forms through and frowned.
“You haven’t given us the name of your old doctor.”
“I know,” I told her. “I didn’t have one.”
“But then who did you make an appointment with?”
“Just whoever was free first.”
She still seemed confused, so I explained the way things were back in the hood. She looked at me strangely for a while (perhaps I shouldn’t have been referring to a middle class London suburb full of old people as “the hood”) and then went back to my form. Once she’d waded through the numerous mistakes I’d made and helped me to fix them, she explained that if I ever needed an appointment I just had to phone in the morning and I’d be seen the same day.
“But what if you can’t fit everyone in?” I asked, thinking back to my weeks of waiting in line behind hoardes of elderly people taking so many pills they’d rattle if you shook them.
“That’s literally never happened.”
We looked at each other for a few more seconds. Me, thinking about how weird it would feel to need to go to the doctors and then just be able to go without having to beg or bribe anybody. Her, judging by the look on her face, thinking that the outskirts of London were some kind of third-world country that I’d escaped from.
I probably should have corrected her, but now that I’ve seen how things work down here, I’m really not so sure. Now, if anyone needs me I’ll be at the doctors, purely because I can.