Tim Dowling: free healthcare is always music to American ears – even slightly deaf ones

·4 min read

At the end of last summer I went to see the GP about my left ear: I wasn’t hearing very well out of it. The GP couldn’t see anything wrong, thanks to the bony protrusions lining my ear canal – the result, I understand, of regular cold water swimming as a child. I knew about those anyway; they don’t do much, apart from block the view.

But the GP was concerned enough to refer me to an ear clinic. I wasn’t worried, until I rang the clinic about my appointment and they told me there was a six-month waiting list, at which point I decided I was going deaf.

I figured it was my duty to bear this burden while the NHS resolved a giant Covid backlog, but at a band rehearsal later that week I was so transparently fraught that the guitar player secured me a private appointment with an ENT specialist he knew. In the morning we rehearsed a song I’d written, then I went off to my appointment, returning to the rehearsal studio two hours later.

“I’ve a hole in my eardrum,” I said.

“We dropped your song from the set while you were gone,” said the fiddle player.

I got home that evening at about 9pm. My wife was watching TV.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“They cut my song while I was lying in hospital,” I say.

“It was a hearing test,” she said.

“You have to lie down for part of it,” I say.

The next day I received a letter of introduction to a private consultant surgeon, which I ignored. I thought my hearing was priceless, but it turns out it isn’t when I’m paying.

And that was that, until out of nowhere I receive a call from a mystery number. I almost don’t answer.

“Is that Robert?” says a voice. Robert is my real first name, and generally a preface to bad tidings.

“Yes,” I say, switching to my good ear.

“It’s the ENT clinic,” the voice says. “We’ve got an appointment open on Wednesday.”

“You mean this Wednesday?” I say.

On Wednesday morning I go off to the clinic on the bus, returning just before lunchtime.

“How was it?” my wife says.

“It was amazing,” I say. “Everyone was so nice. And we got to use all the machines.”

“It’s a big day out for you, isn’t it?” she says. It’s true: for an American, free healthcare at the point of use still feels thrilling. I always get back giddy.

“The doctor and I sort of hit it off,” I say. “He wants to see me again.”

“Is that good?” she says.

“We’re not considering surgery at this point,” I say. “But we’re not ruling it out.”

After an eight-month wait, healthcare starts coming at me fast: two days later I receive a letter notifying me of an MRI scan scheduled for the following Friday afternoon.

“We’re supposed to be going away,” my wife says. “I’ve just bought the train tickets.”

“I could try and change it,” I say.

“That’s right, you could,” she says.

“It just seems so churlish not to accept,” I say. “I mean, it’s free!”

I don’t remember to call until Tuesday, when it seems more churlish still. As the phone rings, I think: remember to say it’s because of work.

“Hello?” says a woman’s voice. I explain about the 5.25pm appointment.

“It says I’m supposed to call to confirm, but instead I was wondering if I might possibly, um, change it?”

There is a long silence at the other end, beyond which I can just hear the bustle of an overstretched community MRI hub in full swing.

“Be honest with me,” she says finally. “Are you trying to change it because it’s Friday 13th?”

“What?” I say. “No.”

“Ha!” she says. “I wouldn’t blame you!”

“I didn’t even notice the date,” I say. “I’m not …”

“It’s OK,” she says.

“Honestly, it’s just the time that’s difficult,” I say. “I can do Friday morning.”

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I won’t do that to you!”

She laughs for a long time. I imagine her leaning back in her chair.

“You know what?” I say. “If it would help, I’m more than happy to tempt fate by taking an unpopular slot. I owe it to the NHS!”

“Ha ha!” she says. “But seriously, Robert, I’m not going to let you. Can you do Monday?”

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