Crisis amid progress
I walked into a crisis as soon as I joined the NHS in 1980 as head of public relations in the Oxford region.For years a labour government had been trying to shift resources to areas of greater need and Oxford felt hard done by. So we sent a deputation to the new conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and got sent away with a flea in the ear.
“Think the unthinkable” they told us. So we did. The region’s far-sighted medical officer, Rosemary Rue came up with some ideas. Should we limit maternity to 48 hours? Could 25% of operations be day surgery? And lots more. If we did, it could save £12 million a year.The paper got leaked and was immediately seized on by the media as the first evidence of a new wave of Tory cuts and prompted howls of anguish. I was pushed in front of the TV cameras, the government were furious, and I think Rosemary Rue was secretly quite pleased. Most of what she foresaw happens every day now.
Rosemary wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we got on well. Left a single mother, handicapped by polio, she battled her way to the top, famously leading the way in part time contracts for women doctors. Her technique, as described at her funeral, was “management by sherry.” She was never at work before 10, and always there after six when it was a good time to talk over a glass. It was said she made an appointment with a surgeon to meet at 8.00. He turned up at 8 a.m., she expected him at 8.p.m. Larger than life people often featured in my work. Jimmy Savile was one. At the time I admired him. He motivated people like no other person I knew. Raising £10 million for the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville through inspiring ordinary people to give him money was astounding. He was pals with the royals and surprised everyone when Diana as well as Charles came to open the building. He was always very straight with me, and I liked working with him.
Maybe he put in a word for me when we bid for a contract to do PR for Broadmoor, which my team won in competition with the private sector. We walked straight into a crisis when James “Wolf Man” Saunders escaped by sawing through metal bars, using knotted sheets to descend and then leapt from a security lamp post over the wall. Broadmoor often felt safer than many of the mental hospitals where nurses were caring for patients with minimal privacy and facilities. Some of our best work was done in films and publications to take staff, the public and patient’s families with us on the journey towards closing long stay hospitals.
It came to an end in 1995 when we were outsourced to an American corporation whose ethics were not what I joined the NHS for. I resigned. But then began a new life when Mike Fleming asked me to take on the monthly newsletter for Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals. I was proud that it became the chief source of information for thousands of hospital staff.
It was in 1997 that Roger Titley, with whom I had worked closely during his NHS career in Aylesbury, rang me up with a plaintive request: “The NHS Retirement Fellowship wants a newsletter and I don’t know where to start.” He added that he had no idea what we could put in it, and it wasn’t going to take me very long to do. The first four page issue came out in November that year and it’s been going ever since. Today’s problem is not what to put in it, but how to fit everything in. And how can I find the time to do it. In its 21 years we have tried to share information, to recognise achievement and to spread innovative ideas. It seems to have worked.