Last Sunday night I was helping out at the Stratford Night Shelter for homeless people, run each winter by churches from this part of east London. A burly man in his forties sat alone eating supper so I joined him with my cuppa and, in his halting English, he told me his story.
His name is unpronounceable and, he said proudly, unique to Lithuanians like himself. He also speaks fluent Russian and Polish and has picked up some English since coming to the UK five years ago to work as a driver for a London-based Lithuanian company; most of the chat amongst colleagues at work was in their native language so his English is still limited.
A couple of years ago he was driving his van alone 150 miles from London in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by fields when he had a heart attack. He was isolated, didn’t (and still doesn’t) know where he was, couldn’t communicate properly in our language and hadn’t a clue how to contact emergency services of which anyway he had only hazy knowledge. There was no one about so his only option was to call his London office although he was unable to identify his location.
They in turn called the ambulance service who – here’s the modern miracle – managed to trace him via his mobile signal. In due course he was in hospital, his life saved.
Two years later he is now fully recovered with merely the need to take six pills a day subscribed by a GP – “they keep me alive”. The rescue, hospital and on-going health care have cost him nothing and his amazement and gratitude are palpable. “I don’t want to die,” he kept telling me.
Further, although his company has since closed its London operation and moved elsewhere in Europe making him redundant, he cannot return home. Medical treatment in Lithuania is very expensive so he couldn’t afford the vital medication and, worse, corruption is massive and endemic so he couldn’t afford the additional palm-greasing. “I have to live here to stay alive,” he said, even though currently for him living here means living on the streets – a fact of life which surprisingly doesn’t seem to bother him overmuch.
But I was interested in his overwhelming gratitude. In our cynical self-centred age where the dominant cultural discourse is about making demands, claiming rights and complaining, his appreciation of what the medical services have done for him seems childlike and naïve. But it is also refreshing, attractive and profoundly Christian whether he is a believer or not.
Inspired by him, my New Year’s resolution now is to be thankful daily for the healthy life I have been given and the prosperous technologically- and medically-advanced society into which I have been born and from which I benefit. These are none of my doing, so my gratitude is to the First Giver of that life, the One who decided into which society I should be born. After all it might have been poverty-stricken Afghanistan or Haiti – or corrupt Lithuania.
I am also grateful to the chief architect of the NHS and Labour’s post war Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan (here). He was ‘the most brilliant Minister of Health the country has ever had’ (British Medical Journal) who battled with his colleagues and opponents for the NHS core principle of ‘free at point of use’, even to the point of resignation from the government.
My Lithuanian friend is alive today in part because of that principle. And he’s thankful.