[Originally published in the Guardian, 21.06.18]
Too many times their cries had filled the radiotherapy suite. For children, the necessary separation from their parents during treatment can be intolerably frightening. Sometimes, only a general anaesthetic can quell the terror as radioactivity targets their cancer.
Recently, an NHS play therapist put her mind to this problem, devising an ingenious solution. Her ‘magic string’ is a simple ball of multicoloured twine, one end of which can be clasped by the young patient, the other by their parent. The therapist invented something powerful and healing. A literal thread that is, simultaneously, a narrative thread – a story a frightened child can tell themselves, while lying alone behind a lead-lined door, that mummy or daddy are still there, loving and holding onto them. Simultaneously cheap as chips and priceless, magic string was created not for profit, nor for personal gain – but simply because someone cared.
In a world of performance data, spreadsheets and efficiency savings, it is easy to forget the transformational force of simple acts of kindness. But for 70 years, the lifeblood of the NHS has been basic, glitz-free, humdrum humanity. Kindness isn’t loud, it doesn’t grab headlines. Yet all of us, NHS staff and patients alike, know that what heals is more than doctors’ drugs or scalpels. It is the quieter, smaller things too – being held, heard and shown you matter – that make patients feel cherished, and hospitals humane.
Goodwill doesn’t merely keep the NHS afloat, it inspires a nation’s love and pride. But right now, the magic string that binds the NHS together has never been more threadbare. Overstretched staff are benumbed by burnout. Compassion fatigue is rife. If ever a birthday present mattered, it is sufficient frontline staff to preserve kindness at our NHS’s core.