Harry Leslie Smith: Earlier this month, I was struck by pneumonia at the age of 94. It almost made me give up the ghost as I grew so ill I required a hospital stay and intravenous antibiotics.
I even needed my right lung drained of fluids. This brush with sickness reminded me that because I am very old, death is stalking me as a hunter tracks a wounded animal.
But I know were it not for the NHS my life would have ended a long time ago because I come from an endless ancestry of hard-working folk whose labour never paid enough to afford a pleasant life.
The working class only came to good fortune when a Labour government was elected in 1945. Clem Attlee’s government dragged the country into the future by erecting a welfare state built upon the principle of universal healthcare, delivered through the NHS. I recognised in 1948, when it was established, that it was a revolutionary concept because before then a trip to the doctor wasn’t based upon your needs but what was in your wallet.
When I fell ill with bronchitis a month after the NHS was born, I was gobsmacked that I’d been treated and issued antibiotics without having to wonder how I’d pay for it on my labourer’s wage.
It’s why I’ve been frantic to impart to the younger generations that the consequences of not defending their right to an NHS that is funded by the State are dire.
If you are indifferent to the erosion of NHS services, the loss of trained staff due to Brexit or the demoralisation of staff due to austerity and inadequate wages, you are surrendering my generation’s greatest accomplishment – the creation of universal public healthcare.
It will return Britain to the dog-eat-dog world of my youth, where I was traumatised by screams from poor people dying of cancer who couldn’t afford morphine to ease the agony of their end.
To this day, I recall with horror the parade of people I encountered during the Great Depression who died without proper medical attention because they didn’t come from the right class.
In the doss houses my family fled to when my dad lost his job in the mines, I met people with all types of untreated illnesses. Each suffered debilitating pain and stoically took their anguish as part and parcel of their existence.
I remember how pathetically my own grandad died in 1936 in the grim, tiny parlour of his rented two-up one-down, in great discomfort, being loved but inadequately cared for by my gran.
In those days we were at the mercy of our poverty. As a bairn I was sickly from malnutrition and suffered continuous bouts of diarrhoea that caused a prolapse. As there was no NHS or money for a doctor, all my mum could do was push it back inside. From the moment I could walk, I knew a pauper’s pit awaited anyone too weak to withstand the ailments of childhood, as it’s where my eldest sister Marion ended up after she succumbed to spinal tuberculosis aged nine in 1926.
As a boy I was witness to her slow, agonising death in our tenement squat.
What I remember most is the anguish my parents endured as they just didn’t have the dosh to afford medical specialists, sanitariums or proper diets that could have helped keep my sister’s TB as a chronic, rather than fatal, condition.
Marion died from the disease of systemic poverty and the indifference of the wealthy to those who lived below them. The pavements were crowded with malnourished children riddled with rickets, boils, lice and incessant hunger.
I was one of those and I was petrified by the knowledge that if I got hurt or sick, my survival depended on luck.
H owever, over time and through the bloodshed of the Second World War, my generation finally demanded that all people of Britain deserved healthcare.
The NHS is your birthright, earned through the inhuman suffering that your grandparents and great-grandparents endured during the Great Depression.
If you do not stand up and resist its destruction by this Tory government, your fate will be as unkind as the one I saw meted out to anyone working class who got sick in the 1920s and 1930s.
I am one of the last people in Britain who can remember our country during an era when getting ill was a passport to extreme poverty, homelessness or premature death. Britain is suffering another winter of discontent in the NHS because of austerity, the threat of Brexit and the monetisation of medicine by giant oligopolies like Virgin healthcare.
A hard flu season means A&E departments look like triage wards just behind combat lines in war. Hospital hallways are stuffed with patients waiting for care or rooms while languishing on trolleys.
Under Jeremy Hunt, the NHS has been stripped and starved of resources – and hope – when it should be protected and honoured.
In July it will be 70 and its creation should be treated with the same reverence as Nelson for victory at Trafalgar.
You see, the formation of the NHS was the greatest battle ever won by the common people of this country because it liberated us from the scourge of sickness and the poverty.
As I am almost 100 years old, I am one of the last living bridges to your history. It’s why you must stand up and defend the NHS against the machinations of big business and the Tories who want to make my past your future.
By Harry Leslie Smith, author of Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future by Harry Leslie Smith, Published in 2017 by Little Brown.