In 2018 Daisy May Cooper, who writes and stars in the BBC comedy This Country, was recovering in hospital after giving birth to her first baby, Pip, by emergency caesarean section. She was feeling emotional, although that had less to do with having brought forth new life than the fact that she had gone eight days without having a poo. “I forgot what it was to be human,” she writes, mournfully. “I had taken such a simple bodily function for granted – what I would give to have a dump.” Eventually, she burst into tears in front of a nurse, who rustled up some liquid laxatives and, half an hour later, gently led her to the nearest bathroom. “That angel in blue saved me,” she says. “I cried on the toilet in gratitude.”
Cooper’s story is one of many moments of thankfulness and extreme over-sharing in Dear NHS, a collection of essays by celebrities and writers hastily gathered together by Adam Kay, the former junior doctor and mega-selling author of This Is Going to Hurt. Few things unite the country in admiration and protectiveness as much as the NHS, so it’s no surprise that the book – the profits of which will go to NHS Charities Together and the Lullaby Trust – has quite the roll-call of contributors, among them Paul McCartney, Malala Yousafzai, Mary Beard, Andrew Marr, Naomie Harris, Rob Brydon, Kate Tempest, Johnny Vegas, Trevor McDonald, Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci.
There are vivid tales here of broken bones, gaping wounds, burst appendixes, engorged boils, enlarged testicles and chronic diarrhoea. If love and gratitude are the prevailing emotions, mortification is a frequent visitor. Nish Kumar recalls the day he was sent to hospital after losing the end of a cotton bud in his ear, while Chris O’Dowd confesses how, aged 27, he collapsed with a suspected heart attack and was rushed to A&E, where it was decided he had trapped wind. Jilly Cooper remembers falling into the pond in her garden after a boozy lunch, cracking four ribs and puncturing a lung. More people than you might imagine lose their fingertips in kitchen accidents.
Related: Share your thanks to the NHS
Elsewhere, there are some wildly surreal stories, from the novelist John Niven attempting to bring round a man who had overdosed on heroin by poking ice cubes up his bum, to a story from Irvine Welsh involving a samurai sword and a lost appendage. There are also moments of poignance – births, major illnesses, deaths, and a suicide attempt – that changed lives forever.
Literary excellence may not be the point of a book such as this, but even so some of the entries are short on effort. Ricky Gervais provides a total of 10 lines comprising a Wikipedia-style precis of his humble beginnings before noting that healthcare is why he’s happy to pay his taxes “now that I’ve got a bob or two”, while the comedian Josh Widdicombe squeezes out two short and unintelligible paragraphs about having once had an anaesthetic. Jamie Oliver takes the “will this do?” approach to the next level as he cuts and pastes his recipes for veggie chilli and rye bread scones, both of which have long been available elsewhere.
Similarly dispiriting is the parade of comics whose stories of being treated by the NHS are built around the punchline of being recognised while someone inspects their rear end. Chief offender is Lee Mack who spends five pages reflecting on the challenges that come with being recognised in public and whether he should keep his hat on during a prostate examination by way of a disguise. Miranda Hart, who recalls a visit to hospital for an enema, comes a close second as she wonders, perhaps in jest, whether she would get “preferential treatment because of the whole fame thing”. In the end she is relieved to observe that all the nurses “were showing the same level of attention to even the most cantankerous of patients”.
Yet amid these egregious tales of swollen egos are other, more generous essays about the experience of being hospitalised, or watching loved ones in distress, or that offer broader observations about why free healthcare is worth fighting for. Caitlin Moran provides a rousing paean to the ritual of giving blood. “Donation feels like an act of thankfulness,” she writes. “It acknowledges that you are alive, and grateful for it, and wish to share the gift of living with someone else for whom living has become, suddenly, perilous.”
Of the many bedside vigils, Sali Hughes’s lyrical account of watching over her stricken son while observing the daily miracles performed by staff is a tearjerker. The comedian Jimmy Carr abandons his customary archness in favour of warmth and profundity as he remembers his mother’s final days. “Bearing witness to a death is an incredibly intimate thing,” he explains. “You should be there, not because it’s easy – it isn’t – but because one day you’ll want someone to hold your hand.” Mark Gatiss’s reflections on the death of his mother (“a little dot of fun Anglo-Irishness”), and later his sister and his brother-in-law, reveal a life tinged by tragedy. “Nothing about this is easy to write,” he reflects. “Except that knowing there is a system of care, a net to catch us when we fall, is one of this country’s greatest success stories … We simply couldn’t survive without the NHS. It is the best of us.”
• Dear NHS is published by Trapeze (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.