Watching coverage of the celebrations last week marking the 60th year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign got me thinking of the unusual souvenir my wife brought home from our trip to Great Britain in March — a pair of crutches provided courtesy of the taxpayers of the United Kingdom.
I didn’t want to jinx Stephanie’s recovery from her injury by writing about how we came to acquire the Diamond Jubilee crutches, but I think it’s OK to talk about our experiences now. In fact, she’s not had to rely on the crutches since we returned home. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I should explain why we (and Stephanie in particular) were so grateful to get free crutches from the National Health Service.
We began our nine-day tour of England, Scotland and Wales by arriving at Gatwick Airport outside of London early on a Saturday. After spending almost eight hours sitting on a cramped airplane, we were happy to be able to move around. Unfortunately, that euphoria didn’t last long. While walking down a long ramp that led from the international gate to customs, Stephanie pulled a ligament in her knee.
“I felt it pop,” she told me as she tried to balance on one leg.
Every step she took was pure agony. I don’t know how she made it through customs. Stephanie was in such obvious pain that the other commuters in line moved away from us as if they were afraid they might catch whatever horrible thing she had.
When we finally made it to our hotel in London, a merciful bellhop said he would find her a wheelchair. He returned with what appeared to be an medical apparatus from Queen Victoria’s reign.
After consulting representatives from the hotel, we decided to visit the emergency department of St. Mary’s Hospital, which was just a few blocks from the Hilton London Metropole. The hotel’s concierge said it would be very easy for me to push Stephanie to the hospital. The only thing, he told me sternly, was that I “must not forget to return the wheelchair.” I guess the Hilton Metropole wanted it appraised the next time the “Antiques Roadshow” was in London.
I had a lot of ideas of how we might spend our first day in London, but pushing Stephanie down a cobblestone street in an old wheelchair was not one of them. Thankfully, it was excellent wheelchair-pushing weather: Sunny and warm, with a nice, light breeze.
Finding St. Mary’s Hospital, which was founded in 1845, was more difficult than we had anticipated. There were no animated signs, zen gardens or fake waterfalls to identify the hospital. We finally discovered a simple kiosk that pointed the way to various departments of the hospital.
When we arrived at our destination, we were pleasantly surprised to find it quiet and well organized. Stephanie talked to the receptionist and explained to her that she was an injured American on holiday. The receptionist politely told her to fill out a form that only asked for her name and where she was staying. That was the extent of our paperwork at St. Mary’s.
We took a seat in the waiting area. The chairs were not modern, or very comfortable, but there were plenty of them. I noticed a number of NHS posters scattered on the walls of the hospital urging people to get their flu shots and to follow proper hygiene procedures. (Interestingly, I didn’t get a single whiff of disinfectant anywhere in the hospital.)
We waited less than 30 minutes before a physician’s assistant called Stephanie’s name for triage. He took down information about her injury, examined her leg and gave her something for the pain. He also offered reassurance. When Stephanie said she feared the injury would force us to cancel our tour, the PA told her in a delightful Scots accent: “Oh now, let’s not start talking about amputation yet.”
Forty minutes later, Stephanie was seeing the doctor. After a thorough examination, he told Stephanie she had pulled a ligament in her knee. The doctor told her she needed to keep her weight off the knee as much as possible.
She explained the predicament with our trip, which included visiting Bath, York and Edinburgh, and asked if that would be possible on her bum leg. It should be, he said, if she used crutches. And that’s when Stephanie received what I am calling her commemorative NHS Diamond Jubilee crutches. The doctor even took time to show her how to use them correctly.
A few minutes later, we were on our way to the hospital’s pharmacy to have a prescription for painkillers filled. The pharmacy was located in the basement of an adjoining building. Stephanie decided to stay outside guarding the wheelchair as I went downstairs to have the prescription filled. That took less than 30 minutes, and again no paperwork was needed to get the job done.
I did, however, have to pay for the prescription — 7 pounds. As a result, the entire cost of our visit to the emergency room in London came to roughly $11. We happily made our way back to the hotel — Stephanie on her crutches and I pushing an empty antique wheelchair behind her.
It wasn’t always easy, but Stephanie made it through the rest of the trip with a minimum amount of pain. We saw all the sights we had hoped to see, and although we had to cancel a few side excursions, it was a very enjoyable vacation. And we owe it all to the Diamond Jubilee crutches.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.