A great-grandma, who did a wing walk in aid of a North-East hospice, has been chosen by the Darlington Primary Care Network as the ‘poster girl’ of the 2023 flu jab campaign. PETER BARRON reports

IT’S fair to say that great-grandma, Nancy Spencer, has had her ups and downs over the years – but she’s certainly hit the heights in 2023.

In May, at the age of 80, she made national headlines by performing a wing walk on an aeroplane to raise funds for the hospice that cared for her beloved husband in his last days.

The Northern Echo:

Now, Nancy has been given the honour by the NHS of being chosen as the ‘poster girl’ of this year’s campaign to highlight the importance of having a flu jab.

“Each year, we look for someone special in the local community to be the face of the campaign,” explains Dr Kirsty Walker, who sits on the board of the Darlington Primary Care Network, and is one of the clinical leads for the roll-out of the flu vaccine.

“Nancy was the perfect choice for us this year because her positive outlook on life, and her caring nature, make her a role model."

Make that roll-out model – and Nancy is thrilled to be asked to help. She’s a lifelong supporter of the NHS, and a passionate advocate of having the flu jab, but insists: “I honestly don’t think I’ve done anything out of the ordinary.”

Anyone reading her inspirational life story would surely beg to differ…

Nancy was born in an old railway cottage, in Heighington Station, as one of ten children. To bring money into the family home, her father insisted she started work at Toothills factory, making furniture, on the Aycliffe Industrial Estate.

At 21, she married her first husband, and had her daughter, Lyn, three years later. However, it was an unhappy marriage, and she went on to find happiness with the love of her life, a Darlington bricklayer, called Brian Spencer.

“He was a real gentleman – that’s what everyone said about Brian,” she smiles.

In 1997, she began volunteering at St Teresa’s Hospice after reading a plea for volunteers in The Northern Echo. The start of her volunteering service coincided with the hospice moving to The Woodlands, in Darlington, and staff joked that Nancy came with the furniture.

She became a day care volunteer, part of the hospice’s sitting service, and also helped at fundraising events: organising charity balls, fundraising nights at the Darlington and Simpson Rolling Mills Club, and ceilidhs, as well as taking part in It’s A Knockout competitions,  abseiling down buildings, arranging bed-pushes, and running raffles and tombolas.

Little did she know when she was volunteering so tirelessly for St Teresa’s that, one day, Brian would need the care of the hospice.

In 2010, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, with doctors suspecting it was the result of being exposed to asbestos at work.

A year later, on her birthday, Nancy organised another of her charity fundraisers at the Rolling Mills Club and, with concerns growing about his health, Brian was told to take it easy.

Imagine her surprise when, at the end of the night, he swept her onto the dance floor.

“He told me that if it was going to be our last dance, we’d better make it a good night," she recalls, tearfully. “And, as it happened, it was the last time we danced together.”

The cancer spread to Brian’s brain. He died in St Teresa’s in June 2012 and, 11 years on, she still fights back tears as she remembers him.

“He was the one – we were meant to be,” she says. “When he got sick, I was grateful for the 40 years we’d had together because I’d found happiness. We were very, very lucky to have that time together, but I wanted more.”

Nancy had wanted to do a skydive in aid of St Teresa's Hospice to mark her 70th birthday, but her plans were postponed because they coincided with Brian passing away.

She aimed to do it again for her 80th birthday but, after suffering from low energy and breathlessness, she was fitted with a pacemaker, and her doctor refused to approve a leap from an aircraft.

Instead, she decided to do a wing walk, taking off from Leeds East Airport, for an exhilarating flight lasting 12 minutes.

The Northern Echo:

"The hardest part was getting up on top of the plane!" she recalls. "Luckily, the pilot asked if I minded him pushing me up by my bum. Well, he was quite good-looking, so I didn't mind at all, and up I went!" she laughs.

She proudly announces that she raised more than £4,200 for the hospice, adding: "I just spent the time up there singing and talking to Brian."

The first thing she said when she landed was: "Has it got rid of me wrinkles?"

By comparison, having a flu jab is nothing, and  missing her vaccination is a risk daredevil Nancy isn't prepared to take.

"I'm a big believer that if there's something to prevent you getting sick, you should take it, and I've been having it for nearly 50 years!" she says as Nadia Carter, Practice Lead Nurse at Denmark Street Surgery, gives her the jab.

"I had the real flu once and I was ill for more than two weeks. When people say they've had the flu, most of the time they mean a heavy cold – if they had proper flu, they wouldn't miss the injection."

It's a message endorsed by Dr Kirsty Walker: “We're so grateful to Nancy for helping us get the message out that the flu vaccination is important," she says.

"While flu is unpleasant for most people, it can be dangerous and even life threatening for some people, particularly those with certain health conditions.

"Having the vaccination is the best way to protect yourself from flu. The best time to have your flu vaccine is the autumn or early winter before flu starts spreading. It's quick and easy to get a flu vaccination and it is usually well-tolerated.”

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If the admirable Nancy Spencer has the courage to do a wing walk in aid of her local hospice at the age of 80, you can surely manage to book your flu jab to protect yourself and ease the burden on the NHS.

It's plane common sense.


  • Age two and three years, on August 31, 2023
  • Eligible school-age children (reception to age 11)
  • Those aged six months to 65 in clinical risk groups
  • Pregnant women
  •  Everyone 65 and over
  • Those in long-stay residential care homes
  • Carers – those in receipt of the carer’s allowance, or the main carer of an older or disabled person
  • Household contacts of immunocompromised individuals
  • Frontline health and social care staff

To book your flu vaccination, contact your local GP practice.