I’m glad to live in country which has a National Health Service. It’s an institution of which Britain is justly proud, and I wish it (one day late) a happy seventieth birthday.
I visit many hospitals and listen to people describing their experiences. There are certainly complaints: long waits, inefficiency, poor communication, late diagnoses. But most of the feedback is deeply appreciative. I’ll never forget the mother who said at the funeral of her seven-year-old daughter who died, tragically, from cancer: ‘If anyone has a go at the National Health Service I shall personally attack them. They’ve been amazing.’
I have certainly seen staff who’ve been brash or unforthcoming. But I have encountered far, far more kindness, often in circumstances where nurses and doctors are under great pressure. I’ve sometimes wondered who looks after them, who listens when they’re worried whether they responded best in a critical situation, or when they’re worn-out from long hours and too little back-up. I try not to leave a hospital without stopping to thank at least one nurse, doctor, physio, cleaner or volunteer. It’s essential to appreciate people who put such heart into what they do.
The NHS represents values close to the soul of Judaism. Care for the sick is understood as Imitation Dei, imitating God, who visited Abraham in his affliction. Hesed, loving-kindness, is the most sacred human quality. Indeed, I’ve often heard patients say ‘The nurses here are angels’.
The Talmud teaches us not to settle in a town which lacks any of ten essential amenities. Four concern health: bath-house, toilet, doctor and blood-letter. (Allowances must be made for context: the latter was a well-regarded healer two millennia ago.) Public hygiene and medical care, preventative and curative, emerge as the key requirements. They, alongside a system of justice, charity and education, define what ‘civilisation’ means.
No decent Jewish community has ever lacked a Kuppat Cholim, a fund to cover medical costs for those who can’t afford them. It’s been argued that it is from institutions like these, originating in Jewish, Christian and Muslim practice, that the core values of the NHS, free at the point of delivery and available to all, have emerged. Kuppat Cholim is naturally at the heart of health care in Israel.
The practice of medicine has never been viewed in Judaism as ‘interfering with God’, the ultimate healer, but as participation in the sacred art of caring for the human body and the spirit, as expressed in the Physicians Prayer attributed to Maimonides (1135 – 1204):
I am about to apply myself to the duties of my profession. Support me, Almighty God, in these great labors so that they benefit humankind, because without your help even the smallest thing cannot succeed. Inspire me with love for my art and for your creatures…
The Talmud teaches that God’s presence rests above the pillow of the sick. Visitors should not therefore stand looming over, but sit on a level with, the person who’s ill. To place oneself above the patient is like making oneself higher than God. It’s profound advice about bedside manner. We are on a level; it’s our shared vulnerability, as well as compassion, which teaches us to care. No amount of injections or tablets can immunize us to mortality.
So, thank you, everyone who works for the National Health Service, all who devote their lives to caring and curing, healing and making whole.
Happy 70th birthday NHS. May you be adequately funded, fully staffed, properly equipped, and appreciated as you deserve.