I’ll be perfectly honest with you – I do not like short stories. However, combine my dwindling lockdown attention span with the poignant tone of Dear NHS and I might just be a convert. A curation of 109 tales from household names, Dear NHS is a heart-warming love letter to the institution some say defines Britain. Since March marks not only the dreaded ‘lockdown anniversary’ but also a year since the introduction of the controversial Clap for Our Carers, Dear NHS seemed to be the perfect fit for this month’s recommendation. With all the profits going to NHS Charities Together and The Lullaby Trust, I’ve chosen Dear NHS in hope of persuading you all to buy the book. I promise it’s not just because I’m a medical student!
Dear NHS was created and edited by Adam Kay, author of This Is Going to Hurt; the junior doctor memoir which shot to popularity after its publication in 2017. Kay kicks this one off with a short, yet humour-filled, introduction. The distinctively amusing footnotes that set his work apart from others in the genre make another appearance and pack the first few pages with his unmistakable wit. He sums up the stories within the book by writing, “They’re by turns funny and heart-breaking, uplifting and moving, and all deeply personal and utterly heartfelt”. I couldn’t have said it better myself. The tales within the book vary in tone but all feel very honest, with the gratitude for those who work day and night in our health system shining through.
Interestingly, the contributors are not health care professionals, rather those in the public eye for one reason or another. The very first entry is an unexpectedly powerful story from chat show host and entertainer Graham Norton. Usually so full of humour and joy, I was taken aback by his incredibly candid description of being mugged, beaten, and stabbed in London in 1998, and the physical and psychological effects that followed this near-fatal event. He recounts what must have been an incredibly traumatic experience with affecting honesty. What stayed with me in particular was the way he described the NHS as being an extremely reassuring presence to him in the aftermath of his attack.
Having read this first story, I assumed that Dear NHS would be a sobering collection. But no sooner than I’d finished Norton’s testimony, I was met with comedian Lee Mack’s raucous inner monologue as he prepares to have a prostate exam, and asks himself the eternal question: ‘should I leave my hat on?’. The book goes on in this way, jumping from humour to tragedy and from minor incident to life-threatening, or indeed fatal, illness. In other books the contrast would have made for uncomfortable reading but here a common thread held the stories together. Whether heart-breaking or humorous, every account was united by the authors’ love for the NHS.
I’d be amiss to say that some entries weren’t disappointing, as variations in tone were matched by variations in quality. Some stories were incredibly short (and not so sweet), lacking in any investment of time or effort. Others felt slightly chaotic or difficult to follow and were not at all engaging as a result. But, on the whole, it was clear to see that most of the contributors had gone out of their way to create something very special. Many entries were filled with emotion, Mark Gatiss’ in particular was incredibly moving. He writes of losing his mum, sister, and brother-in-law, and of how the NHS was there each time, helping to create a “quiet, dignified end”. Other standout pieces were those by Emilia Clarke and Reni Eddo-Lodge. Clarke wrote of the kindness of those caring for her following a major brain haemorrhage, whilst Eddo-Lodge marvelled at the community spirit she discovered during a blood transfusion for severe iron-deficiency anaemia. Katie Piper’s description of the extensive treatment she required when she was “broken, battered and hopeless” was also beautifully written. Many of these stories felt incredibly powerful and it is clear to see why the contributors were thanked by Adam Kay for “opening up so honestly about often deeply personal and painful matters”.
Many of the contributors also weren’t afraid to reveal their struggles with their mental, as well as physical, health. Writer Candice Carty-Williams spoke of the fear and gratitude she felt whilst seeking CBT for a phobia that was consuming her. Fellow writer Marian Keyes offered a compelling account of the dangers of alcoholism and the overdose that accompanied her struggle. She thanks the NHS for saving her life that day and, in a moment of honest political commentary, writes that, had it not been free, she would not have been able to seek help. Stephen Fry also shared his story of an overdose. He describes waking up in a hospital ward, aged seventeen, following an attempt to end his life. Summing up his feelings on the NHS, he writes, “I was helped and here I still am”.
In Dear NHS, Kay has produced something quite different to his previous works. The book is still chock full of hilarious and squeamish moments; the number of celebrities who have cut off their fingers is honestly astounding. But, with the help of 109 personal stories, he has also created a powerful, honest, and emotional testament to our health system. The gushing sentiment could feel repetitive, especially as we all know the NHS is not always perfect. However, in a book written in praise of our well-deserving health workers as the country entered its fourth month of lockdown, it could hardly be otherwise. Dear NHS taught me that if you look closely enough, joy, wisdom, and gratitude can all be found amongst sadness; an idea which feels increasingly reassuring lately.