Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Ian Weir, a young North-East father-of-two, who died waiting for a triple heart bypass. Peter Barron looks back at a tragedy that led to one of The Northern Echo’s most important campaigns, and shamed the Government into action.

TWO decades have passed but Maggie Weir remembers June 1, 1999, as if it were yesterday.

It was a more relaxed morning than usual because sons Joe, 12, and Charlie, eight, were off school for half-term, and playing in the attic bedroom of the family home in Darlington.

Maggie woke up next to husband Ian who gave her a playful nudge and said: “It’s your turn to make the breakfast.”

Minutes later, Maggie was in the kitchen when she heard a bang upstairs. Thinking it was something to do with Joe and Charlie, she went upstairs with the breakfast tray but couldn’t see Ian in the bedroom. It was only when she checked the bathroom and he wasn’t there either that she was gripped with fear.

Ian had, in fact, rolled across the bed and fallen onto the floor, out of sight. He’d suffered a massive heart attack and there was no pulse. Maggie called her neighbours for help, and an ambulance was summoned, but Maggie knew she’d lost him.

“A piece of me died too that day,” she says, speaking from the Darlington flat where she lives now her boys have grown up.

What made the tragedy so momentous, with far-reaching consequences for the NHS, was that Ian had waited seven months for an “urgent” triple bypass after suffering a heart attack the previous November.

Ian, a 38-year-old diabetic from Jarrow, had felt unwell while playing golf with myself and other colleagues from The Northern Echo, where he worked as a photographer. He thought it was chronic indigestion, but Maggie had her suspicions that it was more serious and insisted he went to see a GP for a blood test. Within hours, he’d been told to go straight to hospital because the test indicated a heart attack.

His condition was stabilised in hospital, but it wasn’t until the last day of January that Ian had an angiogram at South Cleveland Hospital in Middlesbrough. It showed he needed an urgent triple heart bypass.

Ian waited a long time for news of when that operation would be carried out. Too long. While he waited at home on sick leave, I visited him both as a friend and the paper’s editor. In those days, The Northern Echo was the Prime Minister’s local paper because Tony Blair was Sedgefield MP. When I told Ian I had a meeting coming up with Mr Blair, he asked me to give him a letter. Dated February 12, 1999, this is what it said:

“Dear Tony, I am a 37-year-old father of two young boys who was foolish enough to suffer a heart attack in November 1998 – which I actually survived. An investigation angiogram, cancelled twice because of the flu epidemic, revealed that I urgently need triple heart bypass surgery.

The Northern Echo:

"THE CHOICES: 1. Sit and wait until June, yes June, for my first consultation with a heart surgeon, then wait a further two months, at least, for the surgery. By that time, I will be out of my mind with worry. 2. Lay my hands on £10,000 for the surgery and my worries will be over. What do you advise? Ian P. Weir. A lifelong Labour Party supporter – but for how much longer will I be alive?”

A reply from Mr Blair’s agent, John Burton, assured Ian a letter had been sent to the health trust, asking if anything could be done to speed up the process, while pointing out that someone else would have to wait longer to bring Ian’s operation forward.

Evidently, nothing could be done because on the morning of June 1, Maggie rang me to say Ian had suffered another heart attack. By the time I reached the family’s home, Ian had been declared dead. I was asked to keep Joe and Charlie distracted so, surreally, we played basketball out the back while their dad’s body was removed.

Ian died the day before he’d been due to see a heart surgeon for the first time, and Maggie kept that appointment. “I wanted them to understand the reality of how long people were waiting,” she says.

That terrible reality was underlined by research carried out by The Northern Echo’s health editor, Barry Nelson, who discovered the average waiting time in Britain for a triple heart bypass was 12 months, compared to three in other European countries. Why?

After Ian’s funeral, The Northern Echo launched a campaign – called “A Chance To Live” – aimed at cutting heart bypass waiting times in line with the rest of Europe. Ian’s letter to Tony Blair was reproduced on the front page and it sparked a national outcry.

Darlington MP Alan Milburn, who’d become Health Secretary and counted Ian has a friend, responded by launching the UK’s first National Framework for Coronary Care. The result was heart bypass waiting times in Britain being cut to an average of three months.

Twenty years on, Ian’s eldest son, Joe, is a dad now. He has an eight-months-old little boy called Seth, and Maggie admits she finds it hard that Ian never got to see his beautiful grandson.

“It’s just so sad that he’s only got one grandad when he should have two,” she says.

Maggie, however, takes comfort from knowing that Ian’s death led to lasting improvements in the NHS and saved countless lives.

“It was a wonderful campaign,” says Maggie. “It was pitched right, asked the right questions, and applied the right pressure where it mattered. Ian shouldn’t have died, but others have a chance to live because of what happened to him – and that means so much.”