When we asked readers to nominate their unsung champions of the NHS, we were overwhelmed by moving stories about staff from all parts of the health service, not least their sheer courage, compassion and dedication during the pandemic.
Last week, our finalists received their awards from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, at Downing Street. Here, we tell their inspiring stories, starting with our overall winner.
When we asked readers to nominate their unsung champions of the NHS, we were overwhelmed by moving stories. The winners are pictured above with the Prime Minister. The finalists from left to right include Cerise Stubbings, Mebrak Ghebrehiwet, Peter Enfield, Nicola Peat, Dr Haider Ali and Alpa Ghelani
Mental health nurse transforming care
It was following a serious incident, where a young woman with an eating disorder was violently resisting having a nasogastric tube inserted, requiring six staff members to help, that Mebrak Ghebrehiwet became determined to make changes.
So after each shift — and she was working six days a week — this recently qualified mental health nurse went home and spent hour after hour consulting textbooks, reading as much background material as she could into the psychology of eating disorders.
And thanks to her dedication and research, the use of restraint at St Ann’s Eating Disorders Service in London, where she worked, has plummeted, and what she’s done could ultimately help patients in similar units around the country.
For those helping people with eating disorders, forced nasogastric feeding is a particularly stressful part of their job. This is used as an absolute last resort, but without it the patient will die.
It was following a serious incident, where a young woman with an eating disorder was violently resisting having a nasogastric tube inserted, requiring six staff members to help, that Mebrak Gheb- rehiwet became determined to make changes
These are desperately ill patients, shockingly emaciated but who genuinely believe they are overweight. Some have to be fed in this way daily, for weeks.
Although it is lifesaving, forced nasogastric feeding is deeply traumatising for the patient, and the staff, too, as the patient may need to be held down and restrained with force.
Often those affected have a history of trauma, such as abuse, and this experience can echo that trauma, say psychiatrists.
And the staff, who’ve chosen mental health to support these patients and champion their rights, find themselves in a situation where they’re at risk of traumatising the very people they want to help — so they, too, can need counselling afterwards.
Mebrak, 45, identified small problems that raised stress levels and ultimately led to restraint.
As she explains: ‘The ward runs like clockwork, and the patients rely on routine. They’re anxious already, worrying about how they will cope with the stress of their next meal, and anything small that affects this tight schedule can set off a catastrophic chain of events.’
Mebrak worked out simple steps to minimise this kind of anxiety, such as printing menus for the patient to lessen the risk of serving them the wrong meal or different food than they were expecting.
She devised a ‘getting to know you’ form — a simple patient questionnaire on admission, giving personal likes and dislikes, after noticing that patients can ‘take a long time to open up’.
So a simple form that states ‘what TV they like to watch, the music they enjoy, and the things they know can calm them down, gives staff an at-a-glance chance to understand more about the person they are helping.
‘If that patient becomes agitated, then the staff can use something from the form to help calm them.’
Another step involved providing staff with a copy of the shift allocation, so that they’re aware of who else is working and can therefore organise tasks and manage their time more efficiently — in turn, freeing them to talk to anxious patients.
These steps ‘sparked a real cultural change and made a massive difference on our wards’, says Dr Yoav Jacob, a consultant psychiatrist at St Ann’s, who nominated Mebrak for a Daily Mail Health Hero Award.
‘Mebrak realised that while restraints had to happen, it didn’t have to be adversarial,’ he says. ‘Now, we have patients who are restrained to be fed, but who will sit and watch a film with a nurse straight afterwards.’
As well as this achievement, Mebrak’s compassion has been singled out for praise by many patients and their families.
One had spent more than six years mostly on the ward, yet incredibly has now been discharged, with her parents saying that Mebrak’s kindness, even when their daughter had to be restrained, stood out.
Spending her own money on buying books according to patients’ particular interests is just another example of Mebrak’s kindness — as is buying, on her day off, a toy rabbit for a highly distressed patient. Dr Jacob says: ‘She goes above and beyond her duties in a really tough environment.’
During the pandemic, Mebrak has worked on her days off, helping keep the unit open while others across the UK were forced to close because of staff sickness or redeployment.
But as Mebrak explains: ‘Coronavirus meant the patients couldn’t have visitors, which was really upsetting. We only had critical patients on the ward, and I felt lucky that with all the uncertainty and fear circulating, I was able to keep working and feel useful.’ And when Mebrak wasn’t at work, she’d be helping in many other ways — donning PPE in the evening to take blood samples from a housebound neighbour, for instance, delivering it to the hospital the next day, and shopping for those who couldn’t.
‘The work that modest people like Mebrak, who never sought a promotion, do on the frontline, especially this past year, deserves recognition,’ Dr Jacob says.
That work has now indeed been recognised — with Mebrak Ghebrehiwet being announced as the overall winner at this year’s Daily Mail Health Hero Awards.
After the ceremony at Downing Street last Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that as well as being ‘incredibly proud of every single worker in the NHS’, he was also delighted to ‘personally applaud those special people among us who have gone above and beyond for the NHS’.
On receiving the award, Mebrak said she was ‘absolutely gobsmacked and overwhelmed’ to win the top prize, and hoped it would shine a spotlight on the efforts of staff working in mental health wards.
Mebrak says her own struggles as a teenager helped her understand patients. She arrived in the UK from Eritrea at age 14, not speaking any English. ‘I felt extremely alone,’ she says, ‘and I’m aware of what it’s like to think nobody understands you.
‘I was lucky because I had the support of my brothers and sisters; but I had friends with mental health problems — and as I witnessed their struggles, I decided I wanted to be a psychotherapist.’
At 17, Mebrak was at university studying psychology but became pregnant. ‘I tried desperately to study but it was too hard while also raising a child alone,’ she says.
So she worked instead as a hospital administrator for 17 years while raising her son, Akeem, now 27, before retraining as a nurse and qualifying in 2017.
Mebrak, who lives in North London, explains what drew her to working in mental health: ‘As a student nurse, I did a placement on the eating disorders ward, and as the patients started to tell me about their struggles, it really resonated with me.
‘Mental health felt like a calling. There was no question that I would do anything else.’
Brain surgeon with a caring touch
Tim Lawrence is a consultant paediatric neurosurgeon at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust.
Even on Christmas Day, or at 3am after a 16-hour operation, Tim will be answering emails and calls from his patients and their families.
As Lily Hawkins, 17, diagnosed with a brain tumour ten years ago, explains: ‘Nothing is ever too much trouble for him.
‘I’ve had ten operations over the past three years and Tim makes everything easier to cope with; he makes me feel so safe. He even recently helped me with my science homework and made sure I didn’t have too much hair shaved for an operation because I wanted to look good back at school.
‘It seems like a little thing, but he really considers how I feel; far beyond any other doctor I’ve met.’
Tim, 43, treats some of the most vulnerable patients — children with serious brain conditions.
He says: ‘This isn’t a job that has time boundaries. Children are in pain, parents are terrified and managing the psychological side by answering their questions is vital, so when the phone goes in the middle of the night, I answer.’
Tim Lawrence is a consultant paediatric neurosurgeon at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust. Even on Christmas Day, or at 3am after a 16-hour operation, Tim will be answering emails and calls from his patients and their families
Tim was inspired by the example of his father, ‘an old-fashioned GP’. He explains: ‘In the street, people would come up to thank him, and I grew up seeing the impact his work had on the lives of others.’
Lily’s mother Lorraine, an NHS midwife, says she’s never seen such compassion.
‘For instance, Lily was so terrified of needles she couldn’t even have an MRI without a general anaesthetic; Tim worked with a psychologist and play specialists so she no longer needs this.’
Tim continued with his surgery during the pandemic but he also helped with Covid patients in intensive care.
Beyond his clinical skill, Tim’s research on using MRI for patients with traumatic brain injuries could help improve diagnosis and treatment. He’s also involved with looking at pushing changes to regulations around window design to prevent falls — a common cause of serious head injury in children.
From Lily comes the ultimate accolade: ‘The care he gives has inspired me to want to become a doctor myself.’
Kind volunteer calling the lonely
Peter Enfield is a volunteer from Blyth in Northumberland.
At the age of 75 and having survived a heart attack, a stroke, and bladder cancer over the past two decades, Peter might have been expected to take his foot off the pedal.
Not so: even during the height of the pandemic, while isolating due to his own health conditions, this British Red Cross volunteer provided a telephone lifeline to 34 others also self-isolating — making up to 75 calls a week to check on their mental and physical welfare.
For many, Peter has been their only human contact, and retired milkman Allan Johnstone, who lives alone, says Peter saved his life.
‘I was suicidal,’ says Allan. ‘I didn’t want to talk about my problems, but Peter has an amazing calming presence and without his support, I wouldn’t be here.’
Peter Enfield is a volunteer from Blyth in Northumberland. At the age of 75 and having survived a heart attack, a stroke, and bladder cancer over the past two decades, Peter might have been expected to take his foot off the pedal
When he rang one partially blind woman in her late-80s, Peter discovered she had one slice of bread and a single tin of beans to last for three days. Within four hours, a food parcel had been delivered to her.
Previously an AA car breakdown phone operator, when Peter retired in 2013 he spent six months ‘doing nothing’ before deciding ‘I can’t go on like this’.
He began as a volunteer delivering wheelchairs, ambulances and first aid kits, then joined the ‘hospital to home’ scheme, driving patients home, checking it was warm and clean, and getting them any shopping they needed.
He ferries older and visually impaired patients to hospital appointments and clubs so they can socialise. Twice a week before Covid, Peter would also take his beloved rough collie Alfie, 13, into local care homes, much to residents’ delight.
Peter is now helping a local GP surgery update its patient records, and continues his many ‘friendship’ calls during the week. Michael Rickwood, who worked with Peter for four years, nominated him for this award. Michael says: ‘Peter never stops — he just wants to help as many people as he possibly can.’
Peter says simply: ‘Helping others is what keeps me going.’
Matron shops and cleans for patients
Cerise Stubbings is associate neuro matron at The Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust.
Cerise was finishing a busy shift when an elderly patient with Parkinson’s rang. Knowing her patient well, Cerise sensed his distress. He told her that delivery men had dumped his new mattress in the hallway, trapping him in the living room.
Without hesitation, Cerise, 41, enlisted a colleague and drove to the patient’s home several miles away, where they spent an hour getting the double mattress up the steep stairwell.
This out-of-hours kindness is typical of Cerise; her mobile is switched on 24 hours a day, and in her own time she takes patients who can’t drive, or who struggle with mobility, to do their supermarket shopping. When one couple could no longer properly look after their dog, Cerise walked him at weekends.
Without hesitation, Cerise, 41, enlisted a colleague and drove to the patient’s home several miles away, where they spent an hour getting the double mattress up the steep stairwell
Sue Lambert, a carer for her husband Adrian, nominated Cerise and unashamedly weeps as she says: ‘She’s been our lifeline. Cerise cares for both our needs. She’s never too busy to call to make sure we’re OK, and in her own time she’ll come for a coffee and a chat, and continued to visit during Covid.’
When a young patient found himself in a new home with nothing, Cerise returned at the weekend with her own furniture. ‘He’d been struck by an awful, cruel condition and had to move into a bungalow but couldn’t afford any furniture,’ she says modestly.
Her colleagues describe how Cerise once spent another weekend cleaning an elderly patient’s home: he was a hoarder and it was filled with maggots. Her efforts meant carers could prepare him hot food in his kitchen.
During lockdown, she launched a vital online support group for carers and worked weekends helping the general nursing team (she continues to do this).
Cerise, who was a community nurse while raising her son alone, transferred to neurological nursing in 2017.
Her official role is keeping patients well and preventing the need for hospital admissions, ‘but whatever small thing she can do to improve a life, she will — she’s one in a million,’ says neurological community matron, Joanne Roberts.
PHARMACIST WHO’S NEVER OFF DUTY
Alpa Ghelani is a pharmacist from Stretford in Manchester.
Alpa is the ultimate community pharmacist, with the kind of dedication to her customers that many will envy.
She delivers prescriptions herself so she can meet customers to chat and check up on them.
Her pharmacy backs onto an old council estate, with a high number of elderly people living alone with no support network or transport, and she often drives those who need it to hospital for their appointments.
It comes as no surprise to learn that during lockdown she’d do their shopping if they were isolating. She also made herself available day and night to patients, who were encouraged to text with a query at any time.
Alpa Ghelani is a pharmacist from Stretford in Manchester. Alpa is the ultimate community pharmacist, with the kind of dedication to her customers that many will envy
One of those she helped, Suzanne Wood, was in terrible pain and exhausted with lack of sleep. Worried she might be taking too many painkillers, she texted Alpa in the middle of the night, thinking that she’d see it in the morning.
To her astonishment, a text came straight back with advice. Suzanne, who suffers from a number of health problems, says she cried: ‘I’d never felt so alone, yet the thought that someone cared enough to reply gave me strength to cope.’
Alpa, 45, works seven days a week, 12 hours a day. When not working, she’s helping care for her father who has dementia and is bedbound.
During lockdown, to safeguard her parents and her patients, she moved out of home and into a rented flat — ‘I didn’t want to have to stop doing deliveries, because I wanted to check up on my patients,’ she says.
‘People were scared, and couldn’t get to their GP, so my phone was on 24 hours a day.’
Alpa says she’s motivated by a sign in her father’s corner shop which said: ‘It’s nice to be important but it’s important to be nice.’
Yogeeta Patel, who runs a convenience store near Alpa’s pharmacy, nominated her for the awards, saying: ‘Day and night, she’s caring for the local community and then she takes over helping with her father — but she’s always cheerful. She’s amazing.’
GP PREPARED CARE PACKAGES FOR STAFF
Dr Haider Ali is a GP in Sale, Cheshire.
The jagged scar down Haider’s left arm marks the moment he nearly died, aged 13, after falling through a glass door — and when he was inspired by the medics who saved him to become a doctor himself.
In this role he’s demonstrated a commitment beyond the call of duty many times over.
During lockdown, for instance, after a full day’s work, he put together care packages, delivering them to overwhelmed frontline Health Service staff (costing thousands and all paid for out of his own pocket).
To tackle the shortage of protective visors, he spent £1,500 on a 3D printer and made them himself in his garden shed — from 6am, before work, and then in the evenings, racing back at lunchtime to change the printing plates.
When the pandemic eased, he printed stethoscopes to send to doctors in developing countries — later sending them the printer itself.
Haider, 38, spent his annual leave working with local mosques to set up vaccination centres in Manchester — organising WhatsApp messages in Arabic, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu to encourage vaccine uptake, as well volunteering to give jabs.
During lockdown, for instance, after a full day’s work, Dr Haider Ali put together care packages, delivering them to overwhelmed frontline Health Service staff (costing thousands and all paid for out of his own pocket)
Once a week, Haider devotes a day off to helping local residents by translating forms and accessing services.
As he says: ‘Many don’t realise that they’re entitled to care, and buy drugs from the internet in desperation, even though most can’t afford credit for a phone.’
When Dr Katherine Polson was a trainee GP with Haider, her sister was rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis, and although he was in London on a weekend away, he drove 200 miles straight back to Manchester, arriving at the hospital where Katherine, her husband and mother were sitting anxiously, bringing food for them all.
‘It was 11pm, and he sat with us for hours,’ she says.
Another sums it up simply: ‘Haider is always there when anyone needs help.’
Ward manager took in patient at Christmas
Nicola Peat is a hospital ward manager at South Tyneside District Hospital.
It was Christmas Eve when Angela Coverdale-Robinson was stuck 230 miles from home, having missed the last train.
Her brother-in-law, Alfie, had died earlier that day, and tearful and exhausted, Angela, then 81, was stranded. Until ward manager Nicola stepped in.
‘I was crying and returned to the hospital because I just didn’t know what else to do,’ recalls Angela. ‘The kindness of the ward staff drew me back — Nicola had taken me under her wing from my very first visit.
‘When I returned, Nicola wasn’t on duty, but then she rang and asked me to spend Christmas with her family, saying she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
‘I re-live that moment still.
‘Nicola and her family surrounded me with love and helped me cope with my grief.’
Nicola, 46, explains her actions: ‘When I heard from a colleague that Angela had missed her train, I just couldn’t bear to think of her being alone
Nicola, 46, explains her actions: ‘When I heard from a colleague that Angela had missed her train, I just couldn’t bear to think of her being alone.’
Nicola, whose mother and grandmother were nurses, looks at patients’ emotional as well as physical needs.
For instance, noticing an elderly patient sitting with bowed head in a hospital gown, she asked her if she’d feel better in her own clothes. The patient’s face brightened immediately — but then Nicola discovered she had only a bag of dirty clothes. So Nicola took these home and washed them.
She also noted that the same patient was going to spend her 90th birthday alone at home, so on the day, Nicola organised a whip-round and bought flowers, chocolates and a card from the staff.
Going the extra mile is typical of Nicola, says general surgery matron Denise Simpson. She is also ‘always’ there for the staff.
‘Recently, a newly qualified young nurse had experienced verbal abuse from a patient and security were called. Nicola’s shift had finished, but she stayed for a couple of hours to make sure that the nurse was OK.
‘If it hadn’t been for this, I believe that girl would have struggled to carry on nursing, let alone return to work the next day,’ adds Denise. ‘Nicola is a credit to this profession.’