One winter night when my daughter was two, I checked her while she was sleeping. I found that she wasn't breathing properly. She was gasping for air, her little lips turning blue. It was a moment of terror like I never want to have again. I bundled her up, and my partner and I ran with her to the car. Instead of buckling her into her carseat, I held her to me in the back of the car. I thought she might die - and if she did, I half-reasoned in my panicked state, I wanted her to be in my arms.
The journey to the Emergency Department took only eight minutes, but they were amongst the longest minutes of my life. When we arrived, we went through triage immediately. My daughter was given medication and a ventilation mask to aid her breathing, and a machine monitored the level of oxygen in her blood. The staff explained what was happening to my partner and I, and gave our daughter ice cream when her breathing was stabilised (a treat she still recalls fondly five years later). She was admitted into the children's ward. The staff set up another bed beside hers so I could stay the night with her; but she insisted I jump into her bed, meaning I spent an awkward night pushed to the edge of the mattress, unable to pull the blankets over my cold bum. But with my live and well daughter in my arms, the cold bum didn't matter a great deal.
As we found out, our daughter had had a bout of croup - a common childhood illness, but a potentially serious one. (My father told me that, when he was a child, children died of croup. It regularly hospitalises kiwi kids today.)
My dealings with the health system haven't been uniformly good. But that day, when the shit hit the fan, the health system was there for me. I think most of us who enjoy good health live with this unconscious assumption: if there's an emergency, if the shit hits the fan, the health system will be there for us, regardless of who we are or how much we earn. Without that security, the world would seem a very different place.
With the possibility of a National government looming, I can't help but cast my mind back to the 90s, when Bill English presided over the disastrous and universally unpopular health reforms. I could go on about the competitive model of health introduced by National and its utter unsuitability to the health system. I'd rather just make the observation that, probably for the first time in decades, it became clear that New Zealanders simply couldn't rely on the health system any more. People died on waiting lists. While the newly centralised 111 system mishandled calls, people died waiting for ambulances. A 42 year old Southland man, father of three young children, died while he waited for heart surgery.
When all this stuff went down, I was horrified by it, but I didn't really get it. It wasn't until I had an emergency caeserean, another birth which required rapid intervention to prevent my baby suffering brain damage, the terrible incident I've described with my daughter, that I really understood what it would mean to live without the safety net of an adequate health system. When these things happened, I understood what it meant to be completely vulnerable and desperate and reliant on others. The whole life or death situation thing wasn't abstract any more.
I just hope Bill English has drawn the same lessons from the 90s health reforms as I have.