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 look backs at a tragedy that led to one of The Northern Echo’s most important campaigns, and shamed the Government into action.

TWENTY years on from the tragic case of Ian Weir, Professor Jerry Murphy has no doubt that it has left a life-saving legacy.

“It was the spark that lit the fuse,” says Prof Murphy, a specialist in cardiology at Darlington Memorial Hospital, who was involved in Ian’s treatment.

“As a direct result of that case, what needed to happen to the way heart disease was treated is exactly what did happen. It is much, much better now.”

The UK had been lagging behind other parts of Europe when it came to heart bypass waiting times, with the average wait for a triple heart bypass in this country being 12 months, compared to three months in other parts of Europe.

The good news is that the momentum has continued over the past two decades, with Prof. Murphy saying that patients are now commonly waiting six to eight weeks to have bypass surgery.

Ian died, aged 38, having waited seven months for his first appointment with a heart surgeon to find out when he would have his “urgent” triple heart bypass, but Prof Murphy says that kind of wait is now “a thing of the past”.

However, he adds that delays in bypass surgery were only part of the problem. What was needed was a holistic approach to heart disease and Ian’s death inspired a necessary step-change because it led to the Government initiating the country’s first national service framework for coronary care.

The Northern Echo:

Ian Weir

“We needed a whole system approach, looking at prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” he says. “It was first time the Government had taken a step back and most of us feel it transformed the treatment of heart disease in this country.

“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.”

Prof Murphy is keen to stress that there is no room for complacency because “a second wave and a new challenge is coming”, largely due to modern lifestyle factors and a rise in obesity. Nevertheless, as things stand, he says premature heart deaths have been reduced by 20 per cent since the 1970s.

Two-thirds of that is because of changes in personal health, such as diet and smoking. The rest is due to improvements in health care, with the impetus provided by Ian’s case being an important factor.

Bypass surgery is still carried out, but other techniques have been introduced, notably angioplasty, a procedure using stents to widen narrowed or obstructed arteries or veins.

“The graph had been turning for the better before Ian’s death, but it has continued and there’s no doubt that his case has been an important factor in that.

“His circumstances were unusually tragic because to die at 38 was premature by anyone’s standards but, in terms of bringing about change, it happened at the right time,” he says.

Prof Murphy describes the case as “a perfect storm”. A young father of two had died after an unacceptably long wait for treatment in the constituency of Health Secretary Alan Milburn. It shocked not only the local tight-knit community but the whole country at a time when a new Government was looking to invest in the NHS.

Prof Murphy also readily acknowledges the campaigning role played by The Northern Echo in applying pressure to the Government as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s local paper.

“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,” he says.

“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.”