A few years ago, a relative underwent major surgery. It was a bad time but eventually came the moment when we could visit. 'So,' I said, once the greetings were done and tears shed, 'is there anything I can do?'
'Yes,' replied my relative, 'you can turn that [flipping] TV off!'
A monitor on an arm positioned above her bed was looping a video of Andrew Lansley saying how much he cared.
'It's been hell,' she confided. 'That [fool] has been driving me crazy and the nurses say that they're not sure if they're allowed to turn that [rearward facing cavity] off!'
I was shocked and angry but, like many people at the better end of a period of anxiety, happy not to make too much of a fuss once my relative returned home.
Fast forward a few years. Fast forward, in fact, to a few weeks ago when another of my nearest and dearest found themselves in hospital undergoing major surgery. An anxious week ended on the Friday when I could finally visit.
I found said N&D sitting in a corner of a completely empty white room but the view from the window was spectacular, with the hills of North Wales visible in the distance, the spires of Liverpool's twin cathedrals away to our distant right. However, her chair had been pushed into a corner with no view at all. After the usual greetings were done and tears shed, I said something dumb like 'so how's it been?'
'Waking after the operation was hell,' she replied. 'I could barely move or speak. I had tubes down my throat and I was in pain. But the absolute worst part of it was having that [blooming] TV screen looping the trailer for a Johnny Depp movie all night long.'
I was intrigued. 'Which movie was it?'
Her face soured. 'Mortdecai.'
Ye gods! I thought. Then this truly is a case of state-sanctioned torture.
My N&D proceeded to explain how she'd tried all ways to avoid looking at the screen. Around 4am, she'd even tried to turn over, hardly advised after major organ removal. Finally, after about twelve hours, she found the strength and lucidity to ask a nurse to turn the screen off which they thankfully did.
I don't suppose there's much coincidence about these two anecdotes. I expect it's a common experience of patients subjected to bedside TV screens that endlessly loop the banal punctuated by the brash until they break a person's will and force them to pay for an exorbitantly expensive service. Personally, I don't hold Johnny Depp culpable but neither do I claim he's entirely innocent. He and the NHS are complicit in the wilful torture of patients. Overstatement, you say? Well, how do you think the CIA breaks the will of terrorists? They force them to watch the most toxic kind of TV played on a loop and, I don't care who you are, everybody eventually breaks if they're forced to watch Mortdecai. It's also wilful because it would take such little effort for the hospital authorities to make it obligatory that screens are turned off until a patient requests that they be turned on.
What does this also say about the role of the market in the NHS? It hardly makes the case that patients' care take priority over profit. Hospitals charge the sick more for one day's TV than prisoners have to pay for a week's viewing. How expensive can it really be to provide a free but basic service to patients? In this day and age when most of us own a screen in the form of a tablet or phone, it needn't involve huge capital expenditure. The BBC at the very least could be made available via the kind of wi-fi service provided for free in coffee shops and libraries. When a member of the local patient liaison service explained to me how the family of one ill patient had to spend over £50 a week in order that they could have TV and wifi access, it made me wonder quite who this service is meant to serve: patients, shareholders, or politicians.
However, that is tangential to my point because all of that is about choice. What isn't about choice is when the sick in our hospitals are treated as a captive audience. There is no matter of choice when patients wake up, heavily sedated, often unable to move, their dreams and reality confused and made even more nightmarish by looped drivel serviced by the likes of Hospedia and Patientline. Forget politics and the ideological battle of free market versus state control. Think instead of common humanity. Stop treating serious illness as though it's an advertising opportunity. Patients deserve better and so, incidentally, does Johnny Depp.