Health Minister's family trauma highlights brilliant hospital staff
There will be very few people who will read our interview with Health Minister Jim Wells today and not feel a great deal of sympathy for him and his family. They have had a traumatic 11 weeks since his wife Grace suffered a stroke. By turn, they have been hoping for the best but fearing the worse.
Seldom can a local politician have given such a candid account of his or her personal life and feelings. Mr Wells frankly admits that on one terrible night the whole family gathered around Grace's hospital bedside anxiously watching the readings on a monitor dip into the danger zone which could mean her death.
The family's anguish during what must have seemed like an endless night will resonate with many readers who, too, have sat at the beside of a loved one as they teetered between life and death.
They will also know what it is like to attempt to balance work with family life when faced with a crisis. Mr Wells does not talk about that in his interview, but in recent weeks he has been back at his desk performing his ministerial duties before going back every night to his wife's side.
He may not have wished it, but he has certainly been given a no-holds-barred insight into how his ministry performs at the public coalface. He insists that his wife has not been given special treatment because of his position, which is difficult to fully accept but is probably true in general terms.
For, as he witnessed, those working in our hospitals perform miracles daily. Mr Wells was left in awe at how surgeons performed cardiac surgery on his wife by going into the heart through arteries, one in her neck and another in her leg. We may often bemoan the state of the health service but we should never belittle its capabilities.
No amount of briefing by a departmental Sir Humphrey could ever fully describe the expertise that all levels of staff in hospital bring to their jobs. And it is to Mr Wells' credit that he has taken time to speak to a wide range of staff, from porters to consultants, and heard their experiences first-hand.
As Minister of Health he now knows at first hand the pressures on staff, the expertise of those staff and the reliance on overseas nurses in particular to fill unpopular shifts. These are immigrant workers who are literally life-savers and perhaps those who complain about people coming here and taking local people's jobs might engage their brains and realise how fortunate we are to have such staff.
These difficult past weeks no doubt will stay with Mr Wells - and his family - for a very long time. His experience must colour how he now views his work. Of course policy cannot be based on sentiment but perhaps he will feel moved to leaven some of the hard decisions in the future with humanity as well as logic.
But his real priority is to see his beloved wife back home and once again setting the knitting needles clicking. Her recovery will take time but, hopefully, she has turned an important corner and the road ahead is leading towards a full restoration of her health.