My daughter had a heart surgery last week. It was her second one, and her brother has had five heart surgeries. Years ago, her sister had 11 months of cancer treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, a stem cell transplant, and high-dose chemotherapy. I suppose that sounds shocking or genetically nightmarish. But we're just a normal Kiwi family with some paediatric health bad luck.
Over the years, I've learned a lot about being a hospital mum, about Ronald McDonald houses (shame about the name but man, is it good), and about the remarkable people that make up our public healthcare system.
There's an equipment coordinator in the children's heart ward that knows every patient's name and, in between sorting beds and monitors and the ever-important teabags, hugs the kids before and after their surgeries, whispering their names in their ears and telling them not to worry, because her colleagues are good, and smart, and have done this before.
A nurse in pre-operation knew how to calm my daughter's nerves, ask her questions unrelated to anything she had to do to ready herself for surgery, and then to remind my daughter the next day, in the hall during her lunchbreak, of a joke they shared.
An anaesthesiologist, drawing on centuries of research in brain-deadening drugs, magicked my daughter asleep and awake at precisely the right moments that her surgeon required, minding not only her physical needs, but her anxieties and confidence as well. He even slipped her his iPad when the wait to the theatre was longer than expected. Brilliant.
None of these skilled staff were born in New Zealand; all of them have strong yet understandable accents, various skin colours, and diverse cultural values. They bring to their jobs skills acquired, in part, elsewhere in the world.
There are so many others: the receptionist that remembers the hundreds of return-patients to the ward; the play specialist who makes slime to deal with the long hours of nil-by-mouth before surgery; the blood service worker who knows how to fill the vials quickly and with a little story; the surgeon who explains things calmly and patiently, as if there are no other demands on his time. But there are. There are other people's kids to save.
I grew up in America and migrated to New Zealand when I was 29 years old. With three kids requiring an unusual amount of healthcare, my US family and I are forever amazed at the public healthcare system that we Kiwis enjoy, everyday, no signing on the dotted line, no questions asked.
It is so easily taken for granted, this omnipresent, expert, wrap-around system of healthcare that, despite its political and operational challenges, serves New Zealand well. I know, I know – it's not the same with hip replacements, or common adult cancers, or mental health. I know, it's expensive for the country and hard to manage, and I know that not every District Health Board staff member is engaged and working above expectations.
Big systems like ours are clunky, have holes, are not great employers at times.
But in general, we have a public healthcare system that provides for a whole lot of people for most of the time. Sure, it misses things, it can hurt, it definitely doesn't pay all staff what they deserve, but as a blanket of generalised care for 4.7 million people that have access to it, it works better than in most other parts of the world.
In the private-healthcare-based system in America, healthcare is linked to employment. An employer provides subsidised healthcare coverage for staff, but if people are unemployed, self-employed, or cannot afford the insurance premiums (around 28 million Americans), they do not have access to quality, or even any, healthcare. Obamacare addressed some of this problem, but, in many parts of America, quality healthcare remains linked to your employment contract and is not necessarily a right.
In my adopted country, most of us enjoy free hospital and specialist care. Publicly-funded support extends to patients' families, covers medical travel, and even accommodation during treatment.
All three of my kids – musical, clever, funny, curious as they are—have cost you, the taxpayer literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thank you. Without you, they would all be dead. Fifty years ago, without the research, the passion, the skills that we have imported or developed within our healthcare system, I would be a hospital mum looking at my offspring with no hope, watching their bodies waste away with no answers to their biological fates.
Instead, all three of them live and lead healthy lives. My kids contribute to your communities, supported by the health system that you sustain. It's a resourced organisation that doesn't have to choose – like so many others in developing countries -- which kid gets to live, and which kid doesn't.
I am grateful for this and hope you are too.