As we celebrate the 70th birthday of our beloved and vital NHS, I’m looking back on my decision ten years ago to leave what was undoubtedly my dream job, working in marketing at Celtic Football Club, to take up my first comms post with Health Protection Scotland, the country’s NHS agency dedicated to infectious and environmental hazards.
In some ways, a job in public health protection may not have been the smartest call for me, being something of a neurotic hypochondriac. Almost 20 years later, I still compulsively over-rinse my hands, clothes, hair, everything really, having started the habit in response to some pretty grubby practices I saw in a teenage job clearing tables in a foodcourt.
Don’t eat anything that falls onto a tray or table in a foodcourt, is all I’m saying.
So delving into the world of communicable diseases, the crisis measures involved in combating them, and the at times frankly terrifyingly easy ways in which they spread and take hold was something of a risk. Would I crumble under the fear of the threats all around me every day? Develop new extremes for managing risks?
Well I did get slightly more stringent about the separation of cooked and raw foods, but we’re all taking good care of that anyway, right?
By far the most valuable lessons I learned working in NHS comms weren’t about the diseases (although I can recite quite the list of things not to catch), the treatments (do yourself a favour and do not google faecal replacement therapy) or the counter measures (vaccines save lives and go through the most stringent testing, I take any and all of them I’m offered).
The most valuable lessons I learned were about the organisation powering this true national treasure.
I saw first hand how monumental an effort is made day in, day out, and around the clock, with staff in all roles going well above and beyond the call of duty on a routine basis.
I saw equality in action, with the consistent levels of resource, care and priority going into emergency responses to anthrax contaminated heroin and large scale food contamination scares, in marked contrast with the relative levels of media and public attention different incidents generated.
I saw the importance of comprehensive contingency plans as I was called in to work one Sunday in spring 2009 to work on the emerging swine flu crisis response, to find a well-oiled machine had already swung into action.
And I learned the importance of resilience when your best laid plans for the day, week or even year can be instantly derailed due to a freshly emerging crisis.
Although, thanks to health being devolved in Scotland, our NHS does not seem to be facing as great a crisis as is reported south of the border, there are undoubtedly pressures on the system. There will always be more resource required, difficult decisions to make, and, like many big organisations, large scale programmes that don’t deliver the value they set out to.
But what isn’t in doubt is the most valuable asset the NHS has at its disposal – the diverse, dedicated and immensely talented team working around the clock to care for others.
So I may not be the most fun guest at a barbecue (I’m begging you – stop serving cooked meats with the same fork you’re using to sling on the raw stuff) but having worked in NHS comms, I know the power of a strong team, I’ve seen just how far going the extra mile can actually take you, and I rest easy knowing that some of the smartest, most dedicated people in the country are looking out for us night and day.
Happy birthday NHS. I loved you already for the care you’ve given to the most important people in my life, and having had the privilege of seeing behind the curtain, I love you even more.