No Bones About It: My NHS

Serious blog time. 

So I’ve been trying to put something up here every day on this blog in a bid to get better at writing and be known for it. I was a bit stuck for ideas yesterday – I don’t know, writers block or something. But then I saw a post from a friend sharing yet another story of professional burn out in the NHS exacerbated by Jeremy Hunt’s latest proposals, and realised I had something to say on this subject.

In short: without the NHS, I think my life would have been a lot worse. Private medical insurance was no help; they didn’t want to know.

When I was younger, I suffered from pectus excavatum: a depression of the breastbone which created a fist-shaped hollow in the centre of my chest. It’s a congenital condition affecting about one in 300 people to varying degrees. Some people have it mildly, other people end up with sternums so bent-inwards the heart and lungs are pushed aside. I was somewhere towards the more severe end of the spectrum. It’s what I’m exploring in my latest performance, I Was A Teenage Volcano.


It’s not a life-threatening condition. Some people have respiratory issues in later life but it depends on the severity. For me, the issue was about self-confidence and body image: I had almost none as a result of it. I felt like a freak. The thought of anyone looking at or touching my body made me seize up. I’d massage it constantly, obsessed by the weird, bony contours whilst avoiding any situation that might mean taking my top off in public and private: changing rooms, swimming pools, beaches, bedrooms. The issue was complicated further by my own sexuality, which I was conflicted about, but my chest was a fundamental factor. All this had a profound effect on how I interacted with other people.

I appreciate that some people, including those who have the condition, would dismiss these kinds of concerns as superficial: why worry about what other people think your appearance? I can’t disagree with that statement. I feel lost in the ethical landscape of changing my appearance to feel more comfortable in public. But I also recognise that not everyone’s blessed with the same kind of confidence and resilience to plough their own weird furrow, and that went for me as a young man. We don’t refuse skin grafts for burn victims because we think they shouldn’t care what other people think, so why should my condition be any different?

My family had a private medical insurance policy which included me. It’s a priviledge that many don’t enjoy but in this case, they wouldn’t cover it because it’s not a life threatening condition. Without a free NHS, this probably would have been the end of any enquiries into surgical intervention. God knows where that would have left an alternative like therapy or counselling…

So I ended up having the operation on the NHS instead. It took a while to get an appointment and for the surgery to take place, but it happened. 10 years later, I feel like a different person: much happier and more confident. Yes, there are other reasons for this, but the surgery was as fundamental a factor as the deformity was to my unhappiness.

I wonder what would I be like now if I hadn’t had this surgery: would I still be afraid of people reaching out and touching me, of being intimate with someone else, hunched over and walking around with low self-estee because of how I looked? It’s frightening to imagine, but I do imagine it – because I know private healthcare would not have helped me.

I’ve just written to my local MP about this, something I’ve never done before. I think it’s important. Whether you have a story like this to tell or not, you probably know someone who does. 

Please share your story and / or thoughts on #saveournhs

Categorized as Diary

By Gareth

London-based artist