Ten years on from the tragic death of Northern Echo photographer Ian Weir and our campaign to cut waiting times for bypass operations, Health Editor Barry Nelson looks at what’s changed for UK heart patients.
OPINIONS vary on Alan Milburn’s time as MP for Darlington, but there is no doubt that he dramatically improved treatment for heart patients during his four years as Health Secretary.
The catalyst for these dramatic changes, which saw the Government plough more than £700m into improving the treatment of heart patients, was the tragic and untimely death of Northern Echo photographer, Ian Weir, ten years ago this summer.
Ian, 38, an award-winning photographer and father of two boys, collapsed at his Darlington home the day before he was due to see a specialists at The James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, to find out when the heart bypass operation he needed was likely to be carried out.
Ian, a friend of Mr Milburn who had taken pictures for some of his Labour Party literature, died after waiting nearly eight months for a triple bypass. In response, The Northern Echo launched its A Chance To Live campaign, pledging to put pressure on the Government to slash the 18 months that UK heart patients were often waiting for lifesaving bypass surgery.
Back in 1999, I visited a heart unit in Breda and discovered that the average waiting time for heart bypass surgery in Holland was three months. Horrified Dutch surgeons urged British patients to come to Holland for surgery because they had spare capacity.
Mr Milburn, who recently announced he will step down as MP at the next election, responded to Ian’s death by announcing a crash programme to expand the capacity at NHS heart units up and down the country. In the North-East, this led to significant investment at James Cook hospital and The Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle, to increase heart surgery capacity, and the opening of a network of catheter laboratories at smaller hospitals, such as Darlington Memorial Hospital, and the University Hospital of North Durham to speed up the diagnosis of serious heart problems.
Ten years on, the big push ordered by the Darlington MP has dramatically cut waiting times so that The Northern Echo’s target of no one waiting longer than three months for a heart bypass has been comfortably met.
Two years ago, it was confirmed that the target of reducing deaths from coronary heart disease (CHD) for people aged under 75 by 40 per cent has been met five years early – saving more than 22,000 lives a year.
And earlier this year experts from the North-East Public Health Observatory published figures which showed a big fall in heart deaths in the North-East.
In 1997, before Mr Milburn’s big push, CHD accounted for 25 per cent of all deaths in the North-East, with 3,230 out of 12,919 people dying of CHD. But by 2006 that figure fell to 16 per cent, with CHD responsible for the deaths of 1,621 out of 9,976 people.
Simon Kendall, head of the cardiothoracic service at James Cook hospital, said a patient needing a triple bypass and assessed as stable, rather than urgent, would now be operated on within an average of three months from the time their GP referred them to see a cardiologist.
“The longest someone has to wait from being referred by their GP to having bypass surgery is 18 weeks.
Urgent cases can be seen within days.”
Mr Kendall, who was a surgeon at James Cook in 1999, remembers having more than 200 patients on his waiting list at that time, with many waiting for well over a year. Currently, he has 20.
“It was terrible but Alan Milburn transformed the way heart surgery is done in this country. Ian Weir’s sad death prompted a massive improvement for so many. The investment programme has been a stunning success.
We have more theatres, more staff and more resources.”
Maggie Weir, Ian’s widow, told The Northern Echo it was “a tragedy” that heart surgery in the UK had to reach such a low ebb before it was improved, but congratulated the newspaper for calling for improvements.
“I honestly think the Echo’s campaign was the trigger for improvements," she said.
‘Take the time to check regularly’
ONE of Britain’s most respected designers, Betty Jackson, shares her health and wellbeing tips.
“I make the same well-intentioned resolutions every year to drink less and go to bed earlier, and never manage to stick to either of them,” the 58-year-old says.
“The trouble is, I am completely undisciplined and hate the idea of any routine. My willpower always fails when I’m on a late night out with friends, and I’m unable to resist my comfort food – Eccles cakes and Lancashire cheese – in times of stress.”
But Betty does look after her general health: “Feeling well and taking care of my energy levels and wellbeing is very important, particularly if you have a stressful work environment, which I do.”
She has a regular medical MOT every year and says: “I also think it’s really important for women to get to know their bodies so they can monitor any subtle changes. I regularly check my breasts, as breast cancer is one of the biggest concerns for women’s health. I’d urge every woman to take the time to check – it’s not hard and it will save lives. I usually do it in the shower or the bath, and it’s easy, simple and very quick to do.”
To relax, she enjoys table tennis, reading and lying in the sun, and describes her life philosophy as “love what you do”.
She has two favourite remedies: “Berocca is great in the morning if you are feeling a bit low, and I take a couple of Panadol tablets to clear my head when necessary. I take both if I’m feeling really bad.”
Betty has designed two exclusive breast cancer pins for Avon’s Breast Cancer Crusade to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, in the cosmetic manufacturer’s 50th year. Profits will raise money for breast cancer research.
■ A silver breast cancer pin, priced £1.50, is available now from the Avon brochure or from avonshop.co.uk. A luxury pin retailing at £7,500 will be sold during October.