Who’s your NHS hero? As the National Health Service marks 70 years, we launch our annual campaign to celebrate its unsung heroes…
- The first nominee is an utterly selfless GP from Devon, who everybody admires
- Dr Glen Allaway astounded patients during the so-called Beast From The East
- He saved countless lives as many old-age pensioners were stranded in the snow
The warnings that preceded The Beast From The East, the blanketing of snow that hit the UK in March, were unequivocal: avoid travel unless it was absolutely vital as conditions would be treacherous.
But as Devon GP Dr Glen Allaway monitored the evening news bulletins and snow warnings, he decided that his own personal safety was secondary to the health and wellbeing of his patients.
So while most people thought only of hunkering down in their warm homes with their families, Dr Allaway decided to head off to work there and then, even though his surgery wasn’t due to open for more than 12 hours.
Hero: Dr Glen Allaway (L) slept in his surgery for four nights during the winter because of the snow. He was nominated by Ian Sefi (R) after providing urgent care to Ian’s dad, Bob
‘I reasoned it was better to do that than risk being cut off from my patients by the snow,’ says the 46-year-old married father of two.
‘We have a big population of elderly and vulnerable patients, some of whom were very ill, and 80 per cent of them live within walking distance of the practice.’
Indeed the practice has a much higher proportion of older patients, compared to others in the area, with nearly half over 65, and with a higher prevalence of chronic disease.
‘I was also concerned for the families with young children as it is so hard to tell what’s going on with them over the phone, and they can go downhill so quickly,’ says Dr Allaway.
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So the moment his wife returned from work at 7pm — she is the other GP partner at the practice — he handed over care of their two children and set out, armed with some basic provisions, such as packet soups, bread, crisps and chocolate from the kitchen cupboard, and a sleeping bag.
It was a decision that possibly saved lives, and which has also earned him a nomination for this year’s Daily Mail Health Hero Awards, launched today in association with Pharmacy2U, the UK’s largest NHS online pharmacy, which manages repeat prescriptions from request to delivery.
Snow was just beginning to fall as Dr Allaway drove the 30-minute journey from his home in the village of Landkey to Lyn Health Medical and Minor Injury Services in the small town of Lynton, an isolated rural setting on the edge of Exmoor on Wednesday February 28. That night The Beast From The East left 10ft snow drifts that blocked all roads in and out of Lynton.
Local: Dr Allaway has been a GP for 17 years — and has spent 16 and half of them at the Lynton practice, 40 miles from where he grew up
It would be four days before the snow ploughs were able to push through — and in that time, while the small town ran out of milk and other supplies, what it did not run out of was medical care — thanks to Dr Allaway.
Clare Hartgen, the practice’s patient services adviser, who lives near the surgery, said that when she arrived early on Thursday: ‘Dr Allaway was already digging out a path so people could get to us — and when the phone rang and people needed to see him, he picked up his bag and walked through the snow and freezing cold in his wellies to get to them.’
One of those he helped was 81-year-old Bob Sefi, a retired removals van driver, who suffers from kidney failure and has to go to hospital for life-saving dialysis treatment three times a week.
The terrible weather meant Bob couldn’t go to hospital for a week. So for those four days he was snowed in at the surgery Dr Allaway walked back and forth to Bob’s home to check on him. Bob’s son Ian, 57, a property developer who helps care for his parents — his mother, Joan, 84, has dementia — struggles to find the words to fully express his gratitude. ‘Put it like this, if he hadn’t done what he did, I don’t know how I would have coped, cut off as we were.
‘My dad went into the worst level of kidney failure last year after heart surgery and without dialysis, toxins build up in his blood and could kill him. But there was no way we could get him to hospital. That Thursday when I saw the snow it was really worrying.’
Scared about the consequences for his father, Ian rang the dialysis unit which alerted Dr Allaway.
Ian says the relief when he saw the GP trudging through the snow up to their front door not long after his call was ‘overwhelming’.
‘He came out and did blood tests to make sure Dad could last until the ploughs got through. He took me to one side and told me what to watch for: any change in his colour, and things like that and told me to call him immediately — day or night — if I did see a change.’
‘I don’t know of any other doctor who would have done what he did, and I felt the fear lift.’
70 years-old: Incredibly, the National Health Service enjoys a milestone year in 2018
With most of his nurses snowed in at their homes, Dr Allaway also took over their duties — and visited elderly residents who needed wounds dressing, or injections.
He also helped out with the emergency services at all times of the day and night — teaming up with the local fire brigade crew in Lynton as ambulances couldn’t get through.
Among the emergencies he attended was a person who needed urgent hospital treatment for an overdose.
The coastguard tried to clear snow from a nearby football pitch to allow the air ambulance to land but were driven back by freezing rain, so Dr Alla- way stayed with the patient for three hours. Thankfully, they pulled through.
‘Ambulance control said they would be there in 15 minutes, but I said: “I don’t think so,” says Dr Allaway. Sure enough they called me back 15 minutes later to say they couldn’t make it.’
Throughout all of this he spent the nights on an inflatable mattress on the floor of his icy surgery office, and lived on basic provisions he microwaved — the only cooking facility in the surgery.
As word spread round the town of what the hero GP was doing some of the local bed and breakfasts offered to put Dr Allaway up, but he turned down their offers.
‘I heard that he said he needed to be at the surgery so that he was there for his patients,’ says Eileen McCulloch, 60, a former care worker who lives in Lynton and is a full-time carer for her father Walter Stapleton, 89, another of Dr Allaway’s patients.
‘That’s just so typical of him.’
Indeed it’s not just his actions during the snow that have earned him plaudits from his 2,500-plus patients. ‘He’s always happy, always smiling and always has the time and patience for you,’ says Ian Sefi.
Looking after two elderly parents can be stressful. But when I’m down at the surgery with my parents, he always checks on me and asks how I’m doing.
‘I know from other people round here that he is always popping in on elderly patients in their homes, checking they are OK, seeing if there is anything they need.’
Dr Allaway’s reputation for kindness and his skills as a doctor means people come from miles away to benefit from his care.
‘He is such a support to us. I have friends who travel from Combe Martin — ten miles to Lynton to be treated by him, because he is just so kind and considerate,’ says Ian.
Do you know a health professional who deserves praise? Nominate your own Health Hero…
Eileen McCulloch says that when she experienced a family trauma Dr Allaway offered her a shoulder to lean on and went out of his way to phone other services on her behalf, ‘basically pestering them to try to sort things out — he was just incredible’.
He also looks after her father and happily makes a home visit if needed, something not all GPs now do. His dedication doesn’t stop there.
‘If there’s a road accident or someone is hurt in the town, you will always see Dr Allaway running down to help,’ says Eileen. ‘I used to work at a care home where Dr Allaway had patients and he stood out as special — he really listens.
‘He won’t just let patients tick along — if he can find a way to make someone better, or improve their life, he will, even if it means pushing for it.
‘And his manner is just wonderful, he makes you feel so important, it doesn’t matter how many people are in the waiting room. He always comes to greet you with a smile.’
The fact that Dr Allaway manages to carry on smiling is quite a feat given his hours: he opens the surgery just after 7am (officially the practice isn’t contracted to open until 8) and stays until close at 6pm. In the summer the population of Lynton swells four-fold with tourists and the GP admits: ‘it does bump up our workload, and we often end up staying a bit later as a result. You just have to get on with it.’
But he never lets his regular patients suffer — in fact 95 per cent of the time you can call and he will make an effort to see you that same day, says Ian Sefi.
And he won’t just nod and write a prescription.
The practice has one of the lowest prescribing rates of medication in Devon because Dr Allaway is determined not to simply fob off patients with pills says practice manager Sarah Stapleton.
‘He listens to people and tries to find ways to adjust their lifestyle and other alternatives before he prescribes drugs,’ she says.
The practice is also a training practice for GPs, something Dr Allaway is passionate about.
‘It’s so important to nurture the next generation of GPs coming through,’ he says.
‘But it’s also good for the practice as it helps keep my skills sharp — having a keen younger person about keeps you on your toes, so I make an extra-special effort to stay up to date — and you don’t want to be unable to answer a question from your trainee. ‘It’s not just my own pride, though — the patients benefit, too.’
And for Dr Allaway this is key to all he does, as the doctor himself speaks of the passion for his work. ‘I love what I do, it’s not just a job it’s a vocation.’
He has been a GP for 17 years — and has spent 16 and half of them at the Lynton practice, 40 miles from where he grew up.
‘A wise GP once said to me you end up where you are supposed to be and I think this is where I am supposed to be,’ he says.
‘When I applied for the partnership I wasn’t really sure what I was taking on — I had trained in a much bigger practice — but I ended up slotting into the Lynton role really well.
‘I love the sense of community here, and the fact that I can play a beneficial part in that.
‘Now I am treating people I first saw as youngsters who are working and all grown up.
‘When they come in I say: “this makes me feel old”.’
His years at this one practice means he is able to provide the sort of continuity of care that patients really value — and which research has shown reduces the number of hospital visits and trips to A&E.
Dr Allaway was inspired to follow medicine as a career following a personal tragedy.
When he was a boy, his little sister Roberta died of a brain tumour aged just five.
‘She was six years younger than me and had a really rough time,’ says Dr Allaway.
‘She was diagnosed when she was four and spent ten months in hospital having all sorts of treatment and watching her was my first introduction to the health service.
‘Watching the doctors help made me want to do the same. It was important to me not to make money — plenty of people do that — but to do something that would make a difference.’
It was while he was at medical school, that he met his wife Maria Mastrantonio, 46.
The couple juggle their work commitments with caring for their two children, daughter Persephone, 14 and son Zac,12.
‘I used to do some out-of-hours work, helping with the service that provides evening cover, but my wife said we had to find more time for family life — and she’s right — you need balance.’
But that hasn’t stopped him taking on other responsibilities: he also sits on the local health authority group, ensuring the needs of rural surgeries, which often have less access to services and a higher proportion of elderly residents, are taken into account.
Yet the modest GP is quick to play down any idea that he is a hero. ‘I am part of a fantastic team here — we all worked together during the snow.
‘If anything I got off easy as my wife was stuck at home with the kids and where I lived there was little snow — and the kids were furious as they couldn’t get to school but they couldn’t go sledging, either.
‘I think the medical centre was quite peaceful by comparison.’
But his patients are lining up to disagree. Ian, who has nominated Dr Allaway for the Health Hero Awards, says ‘‘he deserves this, no doubt about it’.
‘Dr Allaway is a hero — not just for me, the whole community feel the same way — we are very, very lucky to have him.’
As Eileen McCulloch adds: ‘He was born to be a doctor.
‘He’s devoted to his job, devoted to his patients, always goes that extra mile — if anyone deserves a medal it’s Dr Allaway.’
‘IT WAS PROFOUNDLY HUMBLING TO MEET LAST YEAR’S FINALISTS’ -PRIME MINISTER, THERESA MAY
Honour: Prime Minister Theresa May and 2017 finalist Professor Peter Hindmarsh
When I think about what makes our National Health Service so special, I think about what it means for everyone in our country to have the peace of mind that healthcare is there for us all, whoever we are, whenever we need it.
I think about the values our NHS stands for. The cherished idea that no-one need ever face injury or illness alone — and that no-one will ever be denied medical treatment because they cannot afford to pay for it.
But above all, I think about the people — the doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals — whose extraordinary service makes our NHS what it is.
Whether it is life-saving medical treatment or life-changing care and compassion, we all have our own Health Heroes, the people who were there for us and our loved ones when we needed them most.
So I am delighted that the Mail is once again launching its search for our country’s Health Heroes.
There is simply no better way to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS than to pay a national and heartfelt tribute to every one of these extraordinary people.
I had the privilege of meeting last year’s finalists in Downing Street. It was a profoundly humbling moment.
I met Anita Ruckledge, a dementia nurse at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
She is so committed to ensuring that her patients have the dignity of being dressed in clean clothes that if they do not have family to help, she will take home their washing and do it herself.
I met Professor Mike Dixon, a world-leading surgeon and inspiring fundraiser; Dr Gabriel Hendow, a family doctor in East Yorkshire pioneering top-to-toe check-ups for all teenagers in a special clinic; and Shehan Hettiaratchy, a trauma specialist and plastic surgeon who not only rebuilds patients’ limbs but, through his care for the whole person, helps rebuild their lives.
‘There is no better way to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS than to pay a national and heartfelt tribute to every one of these extraordinary people’, says Theresa May
And I met the 2017 Health Hero, Professor Peter Hindmarsh. He is a paediatrician whose pioneering hydrocortisone pump is now being used across the world.
But it was his humanity as much as his clinical expertise that won him the award.
This is a man who writes letters to every child after each appointment with personal messages of encouragement; a man who gives parents his home number so they can call on Christmas Day even when he isn’t on call.
As the parent of one patient put it, this Health Hero does not just deliver the gold standard of medical care but ‘the gold standard of human care’.
It is this human care of the whole person — in the right setting and at the right time — which I have made my vision for the future of our NHS. I want our Health Heroes — and thousands more like them across the country — to know they will have the right support to carry on improving the care they provide for years to come.
And I want this pioneering care — the very best of our NHS today — to be the foundation of the NHS for tomorrow.
To achieve this, and to meet the growing pressures on our NHS in the years ahead, requires sustained increases in funding. So I have said that by 2023/24 the NHS England budget will increase by more than £20billion in real terms compared with today.
But it also requires a transformation in the NHS itself. So based on this sustained funding, I’ve asked the NHS to draw up a ten-year plan for its future.
And I have set the priorities for this plan, including putting the patient back at the heart of how care is organised.
Through this long-term plan I want to see an NHS where every pound is spent wisely not lost on waste or unnecessary bureaucracy. And I want our NHS to be a place where our Health Heroes are celebrated and empowered to go the extra mile in delivering the very best care to every patient in every part of our country.
So as we mark the 70th birthday of our NHS this week and as we make these commitments to secure the NHS of the future, let us also take this moment as a nation to thank those whose care and compassion will define our NHS for generations to come.
I look forward to inviting this year’s Health Heroes to Downing Street. And I urge you to nominate yours.
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