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NHS: Stories from the people who helped build it

BY Stephanie Snow

4th Jul 2023 Wellbeing

NHS: Stories from the people who helped build it

With a foreward by author Adam Kay, this collection of stories edited by Stephanie Snow presents the rich history of the NHS from the experiences of the people who have built it, lived it and love it

Founded on the concept of providing healthcare to rich and poor alike, for the past 75 years the National Health Service (NHS) has been at the heart of our everyday experiences of life and death since 1948. Here are some stories from the new book: Our Stories75 Years of the NHS from the People who Built it, Lived it and Love it. 

Filled with tales of every part of life, this beautiful book tells, for the first time ever, the moving history of our world-leading health service through the voices of the patients, nurses, doctors, porters and ordinary people who have turned it into the beating heart of our country. It is a heart-warming account of an amazing institution. 

Elizabeth Anionwu 

Elizabeth at the table with another woman Elizabeth Anionwu at the Brent Sickle Cell Centre (1980). Credit: Elizabeth Anionwu 

Elizabeth was inspired to become a nurse after receiving sensitive and compassionate treatment for her severe eczema from a nun: "I really thought she was the most wonderful woman in the world."

I went on a health visiting course in the early seventies and I got involved in local Black community activities in West London. We had a significant arrival of families from East Africa because of Idi Amin’s expulsions.

In the 1970s, I worked as community nurse tutor in Brent, based at the Central Middlesex Hospital, doing service development and training for nurses. I loved that work and it made me more aware of sickle cell; we’d had a couple of Caribbean families who had young children with the illness who were distraught. They didn't understand the illness and were petrified their children were going to die. 

Around 1975-6, I met newly arrived haematologist called Dr Misha Brozovic. She gave two talks on sickle cell and after the second we got talking and realised we shared a desire to improve the services. She also had a much broader view of medicine, such as the importance of family-centred community. An immigrant herself, she also understood the race dimensions

We got together and I started to visit the patients on the wards first, and to see their perspective. Working with Dr Brozovic allowed me to help other Black nurses and set up a support group for sickle. We were asking where the gaps were and what we needed to do. The idea was to bring people together to try and solve the problems that the families are facing.

A major problem-causing area in the NHS was that predominantly young Black patients were brought to the hospital in severe, painful crisis due to sickle cell, requiring diamorphine or pethidine.

Put all this together—a condition that, in those days, many people didn’t know about—young, apparently healthy-looking individuals demanding pethidine or diamorphine. People thought they were drug addicts making a fuss and families were angry that their relatives weren’t being treated respectfully and speedily. 

When I started setting up the Brent sickle cell service in 1977 onwards, three or four young people were dying each year. The tears we wept over these painful deaths. 

Sometimes it’s unexpected deaths, young deaths, due to chest syndrome, and the sudden deterioration and intensive care. The family is desperate for information, and you hear, "He’s 23, he’s died." It’s just horrendous.

"In the late 70s I became I became a specialist in sickle cell disease, and the first nurse to run a sickle screening and genetic counselling"

I became a specialist in sickle cell disease, and the first nurse to run a sickle thalassemia inflammation information screening and genetic counselling. Brent was the only such service for five or six years and then, in the mid-eighties, Manchester, Islington and other places developed similar services. The specialist services started to be developed, and then the NHS started to take on board sickle cell, and now we have the Sickle Cell Society.

Things are not still okay, but they’re a heck of a lot better than they were.

During the 1970s attention began to focus on the health needs of some of the UK’s new ethnically diverse communities. Sickle cell anaemia is a rare inherited blood disease which, in the UK, affects people of African and Caribbean origin. There is no cure for the condition, and care focuses on patient education and screening.

 NHS staff of African Caribbean heritage like Elizabeth were crucial pioneers in advocating for appropriate services. Later in her career Elizabeth became professor and dean of the nursing school at the University of West London, and in 1998 she set up the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at Thames Valley University to address issues of racism in nursing. She was made a Dame in 2017 and awarded an Order of Merit in 2022.

She has written in depth about her experiences of coming from a mixed-heritage family and a lifetime’s contribution to the NHS in her 2016 autobiography, Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union.

Sonya Baksi

Sonja Baksi Sonya Baksi 

Sonya’s paternal grandparents were Jewish refugees from Poland; her maternal grandparents came from Germany and Lithuania. Her father won a place at Guy’s Medical School in London and later met Sonya’s mother at a hunger march in Stamford Hill. They were both passionate about improving health, and took the children on their travels.

"We went round all the hospitals in East Germany, we went round Hungary. There was such hope. There was such belief in how health could be improved. If you work from the bottom and look at the factories and the children and the housing and the food. This was the orientation that my parents had because they had been denied all these things in their own upbringing."

I went to a girls’ grammar school with all female teachers. None of them were married because of the marriage bar in the 1930s. If you were married, you weren’t allowed to teach anymore; the teaching jobs went to the men.

My brother wanted to be a doctor. My father disagreed, but he did it anyway. My father wanted me to be the doctor, even though I didn’t want to be; I think he wanted women to be doctors.

There were ten medical schools in London. I was turned down by eight. When I went to the one that my father trained at, they always asked, ‘Have you any connection to school?’

As soon as I mentioned my father's name, that was the end of the interview.

When I got to University College London, they said, ‘Do you have any connection with the school?’

"Yes, my brother is studying here."

They took me in.

One of the older medical students took us around. He stopped in the room with all the corpses, knowing that most of us would be seeing a corpse for the first time, to tell us what books to get. He did it on purpose; everybody’s beginning to feel queasy and thinking, How can I do this? 

"When I taught, I used to say, 'When the patient comes into your room, nothing in the world exists except the patient in front of you'"

When we had our first anatomy lesson, and they pulled the sheets off, there was six of us around our table. "Who’s gonna do the first cut?" I had to do it. Nobody else wanted to.  

The training was very difficult. I remember coming home crying after seeing a Maltese diabetic patient who was going blind, and how lonely he was on the ward. My father said to me, "You’ve got to learn to care and not to care."

Afterwards, when I taught, I used to say, "When the patient comes into your room, nothing in the world exists except the patient in front of you. And when the patient leaves the room, he doesn’t exist anymore. Otherwise, you can’t cope."

My father died three months before I qualified. It was a very hard time in my life. Being obsessive, I went through every medical exam paper. There wasn’t anything that came up that I couldn’t answer.

I walked out of all my papers an hour early. My friends thought, Poor Sonya, she’s having such a tough time. And now she’s gonna fail. But I didn’t. I passed and got a job in my teaching hospital.

When we graduated, the men were called "Doctor" and I was called "Miss". For the first year I was not allowed to use the title "Doctor".

Sonya was to become active in the abortion law reform movement in the 1960s.

Ursula Clifford

Ursula Clifford Ursula Clifford 

Ursula worked through the devastation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland that began in the 1970s and lasted until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. "I hope you become as good a nurse as your aunt," Ursula was told by matron at her interview. ‘My aunt was a district midwife. That sowed the seed for me.’

I was one of the most junior people at the opening of Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Derry on 1 February 1960. It was the first hospital opened after the war and was on the National Health Service. We had newspapers and magazines and radios at that time—and no television.

The beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland was very challenging at the time because the operating theatres played a big part in the immediate care, which meant we were first responders. When it started on Bloody Sunday, everybody was confused. We were running around with lists of patients; we didn’t know where they would be operated on. 

Bloody Sunday was the first major disaster in Northern Ireland and a lot of the patients had gunshot wounds. I remember distinctly one of the surgeons coming to the orthopaedic surgeon, and telling him to "lay it open". The surgeon muttered to me, "Oh, that was done in the Spanish Civil War." In a sense, we were still using treatments from that far back.

When it came to saving legs that were blown up and things like that, they developed methods of screws and plates and bolts which meant that we didn’t have to amputate them. Screws and plates were also used for facial injuries. 

Eventually I became the manager of critical care, managing operating theatres, casualty department and ICU. I was in charge whenever we had a tragedy. Everybody was so competent. Everybody knew what they were doing. We very quickly were able to put the patients through the system.

"I was in charge whenever we had a tragedy. Everybody was so competent. Everybody knew what they were doing"

Looking back, that was the evolvement of critical care and first responding. We became so proficient because of having to deal with injuries that were previously not known to us. We developed treatments for them, especially the facial maxillary people dealing with bombs on the face, and rubber bullets and things like that. How we dealt with it ... taught the world. That was my highlight before I retired.

"I had a wonderful career,’"reflects Ursula, now in her eighties. She delights in the fact that her daughter now works in the NHS and gives her a day-to-day account of what's going on. 

75 Years NHS

Our Stories: 75 Years of the NHS from the People who Built it, Lived it and Love it, was edited by Stephanie Snow and published by Welbeck Publishing Group. 

Banner credit: Good_Stock

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