Boris Johnson, Covid-19, and memories of intensive care

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I must confess that when the news came out that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been taken into hospital with coronavirus, and once there into intensive care, I had a feeling that he wasn’t going to make it. In this I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Not that I wished him ill. On the contrary, the moment he entered ICU he ceased in my eyes to be a man whose worldview is abhorrent to me, and who throughout his career had more than lived up to the rebarbative ideology which underpins the Tory Party. Instead now he was the same as any other human being after being stricken with a serious illness or injury, reduced to lying vulnerable and scared in an intensive care unit not knowing what’s happening and suddenly forced to confront his own mortality.

I don’t care how robust or strong a personality you are, when you’re in intensive care seriously ill or injured — though in Boris Johnson’s case it appears he wasn’t as seriously ill as first presumed and had been taken to ICU largely as a precautionary measure — you’re scared. I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been there.

In 1992 at age 25 I was in a serious car accident in northern Mexico, during which I sustained a broken neck. It was late at night on dark winding coast road and determined to get back to Los Angeles, where I was living at the time, I stupidly refused to pay attention to my body’s desire for sleep and lo and behold at a certain point fell asleep at the wheel. The result was the pick-up truck I was driving coming off the road, hitting a bump and rolling three times before coming to a stop upside down.

If not for a passing motorist stopping when I flagged him down with blood-soaked hanky while kneeling in the middle of the road, after having crawled out of the truck and somehow made it there, then helping me into his car and driving at speed to the border - and from there onto a hospital in San Diego — these words would not be being written because I’d be dead now.

I spent six weeks in hospital that hospital, two of those in intensive care. During this time I underwent two major operations — the first to fuse my C1 and C2 vertebrae, as both had been smashed in the accident; the second to deal with the bacterial meningitis I contracted during that initial operation.

Suddenly being ripped from normality and plunged into a vortex of pain and fear as you grapple with emotions you never knew you possessed, your fate and life in the hands of complete strangers, is beyond surreal. I retain vivid memories of the wonderful nurses and doctors who cared for me. I recall in particular the neurosurgeon who was in charge of my care. By the end of the experience I was in the awe of the man.

In hospital your sleep pattern is knocked completely out of whack, what with the constant beep-beeping of the heart monitor and various other equipment you’re hooked up to. Then there’s the endless round of blood samples taken throughout the day and night. I recall the countless night lying wide awake alone with my thoughts, thinking about friends and loved ones back home — about if I’d ever be able to return to the normality we all take for granted.

I’ve been reminded of this time in the midst of the current pandemic with its awful human toll — thinking about the families ripped apart by grief, of the thousands who’ve passed through intensive care units all over the country, some destined not to make it, others fortunate to do so and still struggling to process the experience.

I hope that in the midst of such a stark human toll we do not allow ourselves to become desensitised to the suffering of those who are stricken. I hope too that the media’s fixation on Boris Johnson does not succeed in distracting us from the fact that at time of writing 8000 people in Britain have died from coronavirus. I hope also that people remember how he and his government completely mishandled this crisis in the beginning with its insane policy of ‘take it on the chin’ herd immunity, and how the systematic underfunding the NHS under the Tories left it completely unprepared and has placed the lives of those on the frontlines at risk.

With this in mind, I sincerely hope that the prime minister emerges from his experience a better man than he went in — that he finally understands just how precious the NHS is, how truly precious our doctors, nurses and all NHS workers are, no matter their country of origin. I hope finally we’ve all realised those who really matter in our society are not hedge fund managers, CEOs or bankers, but instead are those working in the NHS, carers, transport workers, supermarket workers, and all those key workers who’re keeping the country going in this time of extremis.

I hope.


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