THE shocking death of Ian Weir, on June 1, 1999, was not only a time of deep sadness for friends and colleagues at The Northern Echo – it also presented a challenge that had to be met.

At just 38 years old, the father-of-two had died after waiting seven months for an 'urgent' triple heart bypass operation.

The Northern Echo:

The tragedy, which unfolded at Ian’s family home in Darlington, exposed a terrible failure by the NHS: the average waiting time for heart bypass surgery in Britain was 12 months – nine months longer than other parts of Europe.

I’m proud that a campaign by The Northern Echo was credited with shaming the government into closing that gap.

It all began when Ian, a diabetic, felt unwell while playing golf in November, 1998. He put it down to chronic indigestion but his wife, Maggie, insisted he went to see a GP for a blood test. Within hours he’d been told to go straight to hospital because the results indicated a heart attack. Further tests showed he needed an urgent triple heart bypass.

While he waited at home on sick leave I visited him both as a friend and his boss. 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 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?”

The Northern Echo:

A reply assured Ian a letter had been sent to the health trust, asking if anything could be done to speed up the process, but 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, he’d been declared dead. I was asked to keep Joe and Charlie distracted so, surreally, we played basketball in the back yard 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 said.

Health Editor Barry Nelson was instructed to do nothing else but concentrate on building up the case for change – and he did it brilliantly. The result was a campaign – called A Chance To Live – aimed at cutting heart bypass waiting times in line with the rest of Europe.

When Ian’s letter to Tony Blair was reproduced on the front page, 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.

Last June, on the 20th anniversary of Ian’s death, I revisited the campaign to find out whether heart bypass waiting times had slipped back. To my relief and happiness, the evidence showed the campaign had left a life-saving legacy.

The Northern Echo:

“It was the spark that lit the fuse,” said Professor Jerry Murphy, a specialist in cardiology at Darlington Memorial Hospital who had been involved in Ian’s treatment.

Prof Murphy told me the momentum had been maintained over the past two decades, with patients now commonly waiting six to eight weeks for bypass surgery.

“I honestly think the Ian Weir case triggered a co-ordinated response that we had never seen before. I’ve no doubt it was central to that process and heart disease was a major recipient of new energy and funding,” he said.

“The Northern Echo managed to bring together the story in a way that, quite frankly, shamed us – both in the NHS and in wider society – that what we were doing simply wasn’t good enough.

“Twenty years on, there is a genuine legacy because Ian’s death undoubtedly inspired a coming together of people who realised there was a problem but needed a focal point.

“The paper applied the push and gained the momentum at the right time. It is certainly an example of campaigning journalism that made a lasting difference.”

Maggie Weir takes comfort in the knowledge that the campaign has made a lasting difference.

“It was a wonderful campaign,” she said. “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.”

In my eyes, the Ian Weir campaign epitomised everything The Northern Echo has stood for over one-and-a-half centuries.