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An unkind cut

MagazineJuly 2002 (Vol. 13 Issue 4)An unkind cut

A few weeks ago when my five-year-old daughter kamikazied into our coffeetable and gashed her forehead, I confidently whisked her off to an excellent little local minor-injuries unit I knew of in a nearby hospital

A few weeks ago when my five-year-old daughter kamikazied into our coffeetable and gashed her forehead, I confidently whisked her off to an excellent little local minor-injuries unit I knew of in a nearby hospital. This was a trifling - just the sort of thing they see 50 times a day, every day of the year. They pinched the wound together with Steri-strips and assured me that it didn't need stitches, and I left with the kind of buoyant feeling I get on those few occasions when I think
professionals of any variety know what they are doing.


Over the week, when the wound seeped a bit of pus, I took her back to the hospital unit. They confirmed that it was not infected - just healing.


A week later, I removed the Steri-strips. The gash looked like something on a joke Halloween mask. It still hadn't closed and, more to the point, it definitely looked infected. As this was right above the nose of this beautiful little girl, I was determined to ensure that she would not be left horribly scarred.


Again I returned to the clinic and, this time, the practice nurses had an entirely different story. My daughter should have had stitches and, without them, yes, you're probably looking at a horrible scar. They shuttled my daughter and me (blubbering by this time) off to see a consultant in the maxillofacial unit who wanted to book my daughter in that very day for stitches under general anaesthetic. Oh, and she'd need a course of antibiotics for the infection.


When I questioned why to all of this - why general anaesthetics for a five-year-old, why antibiotics (the infection was obviously on its last legs), why indeed try to stitch something shut a week later - the doctor patted me on the arm and replied very slowly and carefully, as if he were still talking to my daughter: 'My, you are a worrier, aren't you? Antibiotics are so safe, they're in all the food you eat. And a general anaesthetic is fine for any child who is healthy.'


This little exchange, I should tell you, was being conducted on either side of a dental chair, where he'd been examining my daughter, as there weren't any other normal examining rooms available.


But it was at the point where they discovered they were out of the kind of bandage they needed for my daughter's wound that I abandoned the National Health Service, grabbed my daughter and fled.


Luckily, I'd consulted a private paediatrician a few years ago on several occasions for specific issues. I arranged an emergency appointment with him and a plastic surgeon at the private hospital where the paediatrician practises. It was an appalling study in contrasts, apparent from the moment we walked into the plush waiting room and were seen to within the hour.


Both doctors confirmed that sewing up a slightly infected wound was a disastrous move at this point. Yes, she should have had stitches in the first place, but a week later wasn't the time to do it.


The plastic surgeon bound her head with a special gauze impregnated with algae which would draw out any infection and handed me an extra supply of it. No one could predict whether she'd have a bad scar, he said, but it was unlikely on such a young child. And of course, if we didn't like it, he could always 'revise' it when she was older.


Sure enough, within two days, the wound had closed together, the infection had gone and, with the aid of homoeopathy, it is healing nicely.


I want to believe in the National Health Service. Coming as I do from America, where an accident victim without health insurance can be left to bleed to death, I regard Britain's universal free medical care with a kind of inspired awe. But when put to my own test, this ideal fell woefully short.


The doctors I met were overworked and dispirited, bankrupt of even the most rudimentary supplies, unable to give me an adequate standard of care even on a child's cut. The sad truth is that, in medicine as in anything else in life, you get what you pay for.


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