Up until recently, it’s fair to say that many of us have been guilty of taking the NHS for granted. But as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the country, stretching the health service to its absolute limits, you can’t help but feel that, as a nation, we’re finally starting to truly understand the value of what we’re lucky to have. One organisation was well-ahead of the curve on the appreciation front, however, as the NHS at 70: The Story of Our Lives project has been collating stories, memories and experiences of the NHS for a few years, and 2020 has seen them focus their attention on the East Midlands. We talk to Oral History and Public Engagement Coordinator James McSharry to find out more...
Can you start by telling us a bit about the project?
NHS at 70: The Story of Our Lives is a UK-wide project led by Dr Stephanie Snow, a historian with The University of Manchester, and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF).
We are currently in Nottingham, recording by telephone the unique stories of anyone who was treated by, worked in or shaped any area of the National Health Service since it launched in 1948 – from porters to politicians and care assistants to consultants.
We are working with several local partners including Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service (NCVS) and other charities. The aim is to capture the unique place of the NHS in everyday life since the Second World War. We want to capture everyone’s stories and the reality of the NHS – the good, the sad, the bad, and the happy. These stories will be added to a digital archive, which will be available for all online and will unlock the rich social history of the NHS, which has never been documented to this extent before.
What is your personal involvement?
I have been working on the project since August 2017 as Oral History and Public Engagement Coordinator. I have been responsible for recruiting, training and supporting volunteers to collect oral histories and delivering public engagement events to recruit interviewees to give their stories.
I focused on South Wales in 2018, Merseyside in 2019 and am covering the East Midlands throughout 2020. This is a national project and we have coordinators throughout the UK.
What other organisations or people are involved?
We have worked with a wide range volunteers and interviewees who have all either worked, volunteered or been treated by the NHS over the past 71 years. These include The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Glasgow and more local organisations including: The Brain Charity Liverpool, Paul’s Place in Bath and CVS in Nottingham.
Collating the stories and experiences from people all over the country sounds like a pretty huge undertaking. What was the starting point?
We began collecting in 2017 in two localities: Manchester, as the project is led by the University and South Wales, the home of [NHS founder] Nye Bevan.
We began by recruiting volunteers to train in recording oral histories and did public engagement events to promote the project and recruit interviewees. The response was very positive as almost everyone throughout the UK has an NHS story to tell. By 5 July 2018 we marked the 70th anniversary of the NHS by securing the full funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) and took the project across the UK.
And what have you found to be the biggest challenges so far?
There is much on record of the thoughts and reflections of politicians and policymakers with regard to the NHS, but no one has ever created an archive of the thoughts, experiences and opinions of the leyman in terms of the NHS. Almost every single person throughout the UK has experienced the NHS but most people don’t see that their experience is valuable. So convincing everyday people that their experience, their story, their reflection on the NHS is of great value has been a challenge
The NHS currently stands at its most extraordinary moment in its history
Why do you think the overall project is important? What impact would you like it to have?
We want to create a more diverse and inclusive history of the NHS than currently exists. The NHS was created in 1948 to provide free and universal access to healthcare and is a key institution of post-war British everyday life. The lived experiences of workers, patients, volunteers and the public encapsulate a unique part of UK post-war social and health history. But the histories of many communities of patients and workers are absent from existing work. By making the history of the NHS more diverse and inclusive we will produce a shared national story about the NHS for everyone that can be taken into the future and benefit national and international audiences.
Are there any particular stories/experiences that you’ve found so far that have really stood out to you?
There are so many moving stories, some of which are already available to listen to via our website. There are two in particular that have remained with me. Firstly, a lady from South Wales remembered when, back in the sixties, an Indian doctor joined the practice in her small village.
She described that in the days before appointment slots, patients would wait for hours to see the English doctor rather than see this foreign doctor who was viewed with great suspicion. She went on to say years later that same doctor became a partner in the practice and was beloved by the whole community.
Another man described how sexually transmitted disease clinics were often in dark basements of buildings and were very grim. He talked about getting a HIV diagnosis in 1982 and believing his life was over. He went on to talk about the advancement in HIV medicine and care over the past 38 years.
How has the archiving project been affected by the current COVID-19 crisis?
The NHS currently stands at its most extraordinary moment in its history. Since 2017, we have always arranged all our interviews face to face. As we saw the coronavirus move into Europe we realised we needed to rethink our processes, so decided to conduct interviews via telephone to ensure we could continue to collect peoples NHS stories while ensuring everyone’s safety.
And have you seen any major changes in the stories you’ve been receiving as a result?
While the aims of the project remain the same, the current COVID-19 pandemic has meant we are asking people to reflect on their current health circumstances in the moment which is adding another dimension to the project . That is why we are offering to call people back once a fortnight with follow-up interviews to allow them time to process their circumstances and reflect more effectively.
How can people get involved in the project?
We want to hear from people in Nottingham and the East Midlands. We’re looking for the whole range of people’s stories of health, wellbeing and the NHS – whether they worked at the Boots of old or were treated at the QMC, whether they were the district nurse for the Caribbean community in Lenton or ran the medical school, or whether they worked in the ear clinic on the Ropewalk or those who want to tell the current experience in light of coronavirus. Everyone has a story that relates to the NHS. Be part of NHS history and get in touch now.
If you’ve got a story you’d like to contribute, contact the project at [email protected] or by calling 0161 275 0560