Things have been tricky for me lately. My two-week summer break turned out to be anything but restful and definitely not a break from the NHS.
My 10 year-old daughter Sophie was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and I got to see the NHS at its absolute finest. I’ll tell you the story, partly because I want to tell it for me, but also because – even in the scariest moments – I couldn’t help but see the world through a leadership lens.
On my last Friday before leave, Sophie attended a regular optician appointment. The optician noticed slightly swollen optical nerves and wanted us to see our doctor (that optician is definitely in line for a bottle of wine!). The next day being a weekend, we bypassed our GP and took her to the Sussex Eye Hospital where they confirmed the swelling, and sent her to the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital (the Alex) at the Royal Sussex across the road to see a paediatrician. They ordered an MRI scan for Monday – just to rule out anything concerning.
The scan showed a tumour: a small solid mass with a fluid cyst about the size of a satsuma. I’ll remember always the moment where my shuddering fears came true. And I’ll remain thankful for the skilful, human talent with which the consultant paediatrician delivered the news.
Sophie was taken to King’s College Hospital in London that Monday night and operated on from lunchtime on Tuesday. The paediatric neurosurgeons – and their teams – did thoroughly fabulous jobs. The post op MRI showed no trace of any tumour left behind. And the histopathology showed the tumour – a grade I pilocytic astrocytoma – was benign. My relief as a father was immense, and my gratitude to the surgeons immeasurable.
But it’s not just the medics who have moved me to write. The care on the ward and elsewhere was almost unerringly brilliant. The nurses who saw Sophie and I through the first two days and nights on the paediatric HDU when Sophie was in pain – were wonderful. The pain nurse was utterly fabulous. He asserted himself with aplomb with the more senior doctors to influence the right mix of pain relief, and we felt fully included in all decisions.
We then moved from HDU to Lions ward, and through the difficult times of post-op recovery I continued to see the world through leadership eyes. The climate on the ward is a potent mix of compassionate patient-focused care and professionally-dedicated clinical practice. As I watched the sister, I saw her clinically demanding but personally-caring style transmitted through her team and arrive at the bedside. I was reminded that at the Academy we are developing a new Model of Healthcare Leadership to replace the leadership framework – and I was witnessing a key plank of the research findings in action: that if you expect patients to experience care in their treatment by your teams, then your teams must experience care in the leadership practice you supply to them.
Under this care, Sophie grew stronger and was discharged from King’s on the Saturday. I wish my blog could stop at this point, but that would be premature. The following Tuesday, Sophie’s energy dropped and on a short trip to town, she vomited. That evening, she had an epileptic seizure – and our NHS again swung into action. We had 999 on one line and one of the neurosurgeons from King’s on the other talking me through what to do. Sophie was stabilised with some calming intravenous drugs (the paramedics get the award, by the way, for the speediest vein finding and cannula insertion) and was blue-lighted to Brighton and back to the Alex. In the resus suite, even though I was wrapped up in Sophie’s condition, I noticed the quality of teamwork. Communication, trust and challenge flowed around us with leadership passing naturally between the nurse specialist and the emergency paediatrician.
Several more days in another HDU meant more scans, more sleeping beside Sophie on a pull-down bed, more cannulas and more antibacterial hand-rubbing. It also meant more excellent care at the Alex that matched that from King’s. The doctors and nurses worked together with purposeful and practiced team work all dedicated to the patients and families in their care. And on the day of Sophie’s (second) discharge, Tracie, who had seen us into resus, stopped by to say a personal goodbye and see the result of the work of which she’d been a (vital) part.
The impact of patient-focused leadership was plain to see throughout our time at King’s and the Alex.
Indeed, the moment I started any attempt at thanks to one of the paediatric neurosurgeons, he brushed my gratitude aside saying that he was just one member of a wider team who were all reliant on each other for the successful treatment of patients. What’s even more impressive is that he said this both in private when he could have soaked up the glory, and in public when he was keen to share praise with colleagues from all clinical tribes. The same happened when I later emailed the Chief Exec of King’s (I’d met him a couple of times through work) to say thanks – he readily spread the praise to his team calling them ‘very compassionate people’.
The night Sophie had her seizure, both way into the night and over the days since, Baz from King’s kept in touch with a wonderful mix of clinical wisdom and empathetic support. His care has been way, way above the call of duty. When I thanked him he humbled me, saying simply: “No thanks needed, it’s not just any job, it’s personal”. And he’s right. I was drawn into my role at the Academy because development is my love, and leadership my expertise. Now here, I’m dedicated to doing the best job I can because it’s our NHS. And it’s personal.
I would like to name, and say a massive thank you to these staff:
- Trevor Hoare, optician, Burgess Hill Specsavers
- Catherine Wynne, consultant paediatrician at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust
- Tony Elias and Chris Chandler – paediatric neurosurgeons, King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Claire, Alison, Ali and Matty – the nurses on the paediatric HDU at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Graham, the pain nurse at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Rani Nair, sister on the Lions ward at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Baz Zebian, neurosurgeon at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
- Tracie, nurse specialist, and Catherine, emergency paediatrician at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust
- Sathish and Oli the doctors, Emma, Gemma and Hannah the nurses – and others whose names I didn’t catch – at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust