Prepare for the worst

28th February 2014 at 00:00

I'm in the short-stay ward of the hospital. My son was wheeled into surgery two hours ago and I'm waiting to hear if he's OK. Every time the receptionist's phone rings, I panic, waiting for the disaster to unfold. Even though he's in for routine surgery - a cruciate ligament repair to his knee after a rugby injury last September - I've seen too many medical dramas to take it in my stride. There's always a complication: blood transfusions, septicaemia or the arrival of a machete-wielding maniac with a grudge against the anaesthetist who has been sleeping with his wife.

I'm haunted by the thought of my son lying unconscious with a breathing tube down his throat, so I distract myself by focusing on the leaflet rack. It's full of pastel-coloured pamphlets telling me how I'm going to die. It looks like my heart, liver or lungs will get me in the end. Despite their grim content, the leaflets are surprisingly reassuring. My favourite is an origami fortune-telling game that warns about alcohol abuse. The shock of discovering you have pickled your liver in Pinot Noir is countered by the fun of folding back paper flaps.

The leaflet that unsettles me most is the one that suggests I ought to "Know 4 Sure: key signs of cancer". The "4" feels incongruous; if I'm going to die, I want the news delivered to me in dolorous, black Times New Roman, not text-speak.

Anyway, by the time you're rushed to hospital, it's far too late. We should be offering lots more prophylactic health advice through schools. It seems symptomatic of our skewed educational system that "early intervention" is something we use to improve league table rankings rather than save students' lives.

My son is a case in point. When he first damaged his knee last September, he was savvy enough to see a doctor but not to recognise his allergic reaction to the medication he was prescribed. He rang home at 4am. While the other university freshmen were letting off fire extinguishers, he was holed up in his room with a sore throat and a terrible rash.

We urged him to see an emergency doctor, who prescribed antihistamines. When he finally arrived home he was struggling for breath, covered in hives and with badly swollen lips. He was suffering from (as we later found out) an acute ibuprofen allergy, but having never been allergic to anything before apart from tidying his room, he didn't know what was happening.

Had he studied first aid at school he might have recognised his symptoms. Or learned how to spot depression, identify meningitis or deal with an asthma attack. This sort of essential knowledge seems to be ignored. We teach our young people how to open bank accounts, apply for gap years or take out student loans, but not how to stay alive. And given my son's near-miss experience, the last might be more beneficial than a free overdraft from Barclays.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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