FOLLOW Dr Richard Hixson on social media and you will find a man who is not only deeply focused on the challenges we face in the present, but thoughtful about how the coronavirus pandemic might shape our future.

As a consultant in critical care in Darlington, Richard Hixson is one of those we all applaud on Thursday nights – a highly skilled and committed professional in the National Health Service – who is spending his days, alongside colleagues, striving to save lives during the biggest public health crisis we have faced in a generation.

But, much as that public display of mass support is appreciated, the bigger picture for Dr Hixson is how the NHS itself will be cared for in years to come, when coronavirus no longer stirs the emotions to levels not seen in its 72-year history.

And, as a committed environmentalist, he is also desperate for lessons to be learned about how to protect the planet, given that the lockdown is providing our world with welcome relief from disastrous levels of carbon emissions.

“What this crisis has shown us is that we have the capacity to act,” he says. “When we had to, we changed our behaviour very quickly and effectively. If we ignore the lessons from that, we will have missed the biggest opportunity, not just about what we do in a place like Darlington, but across the world.”

One minute, Dr Hixson’s social media posts are giving a moving, very human insight into what life is like in hospitals as the fight against coronavirus goes on. In response to a relative, thanking a frontline NHS worker for simply holding their loved one’s hand as they passed away, Richard Tweeted: “I have always felt hand holding was the most important part of my job as a critical care doctor. Not just on ICU but on the wards when explaining decisions. No technology can ever replace this gesture.”

In the next Tweet, his attention is turning to his other passion – the environment – as he posts a video he’d once filmed while swimming with sharks, while discussing the inner conflict he feels that the flight he’d taken to get to his holiday destination had contributed to the death of the coral he was swimming over. That particular Tweet ended with the words: “Big changes ahead.”

And Richard can see the coronavirus pandemic opening up opportunities for changes that can have an impact on both health and the environment.

It should be stressed that he is full of praise for the way the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, and the colleagues he works alongside, have responded to the crisis. “For me, what has been most inspiring is how people have pulled together throughout the organisation,” he says.

An illustration of that teamwork is the way a third intensive care unit was created in just one day at Darlington Memorial Hospital to cope with the surge in the number of Covid-19 cases. An area normally used for patients recovering from surgery was swiftly converted and Richard describes it as a “wonderful example” of the trust’s approach to historic times.

“As soon as we identified the clinical need, it was incredible to see the support at every level – people from estates, porters, domestics, critical care staff – all working towards the same goal and making it happen,” he says.

Many played their part but theatre matron, Linda Watson, and ITU manager Diane Cruikshank are described as “unsung heroes”.

Dr Hixson is, naturally, aware of the national controversy over the lack of personal protection equipment but, in his own experience, it hasn’t been a major factor: “I’ve never yet walked into a clinical area and found myself without PPE,” he says. “We’re not swimming in it, but we’re not short of it either.”

That said, his thoughts are already turning to what kind of NHS we will have beyond the coronavirus pandemic: how that Thursday night applause, and the Tweets of appreciation, can be turned into something more sustainable.

“What’s important now is that we don’t lose the momentum behind the public support of the NHS, which is pretty unique in the world,” he says. “Yes, this is a crisis like we’ve never seen before but, in essence, we are doing what we’ve always done in the NHS. The trick is to build on the wave of love and appreciation, and find ways to support staff better, and improve levels of retention.”

So how might the future look in a place like Darlington? How could post-coronavirus change have an impact on both health and the environment? Dr Hixson has a personal vision based around the electrification of the town’s bus fleet.

“You see a lot of buses in Darlington driving around, often with not many passengers, but pumping a lot of diesel into the atmosphere in densely populated areas – surely that can’t be sustainable,” he says.

“Imagine if we could move to a new electrified transport network, dovetailing with the shift patterns of one of the town’s biggest employers – Darlington Memorial Hospital – with concessions for NHS staff.

“And imagine if we could involve another major employer, such as Amazon. Instead of just coming here and building a huge fulfilment centre that’s going to make them a lot of money, how might they be encouraged to work as a partner in something that could make a huge difference to our health and our environment?”

He sees it not as pie in the sky but an idea worthy of a “grown-up discussion” alongside the increased use of cycles to get to work, more people continuing to work from home, and meetings held on video conferencing wherever possible to avoid travel.

While the pandemic continues to cost lives, the present is plenty challenging enough – but Dr Richard Hixson believes it can also lead to a better, healthier, and more sustainable future.

Just spoken to my 88-year-old Mum who was 13-years-old on VE Day and living in Bounds Green, London.

Crowds were dancing in the street outside her house when the family got a knock on the door and a man from The Army explained that her brother – the Uncle Steve I never met – had been badly wounded.

“We couldn’t celebrate – we were too sad,” she said, fighting back the tears, 75 years on.

The story that emerged was that Steve had been serving with his brother, Ernie, in Italy when the name “Bishop” was called out for a mine-hunting mission. Both stepped forward and neither wanted the other brother to go. In the end, they agreed on a coin toss and Steve volunteered for the task.

When a sergeant stepped on a box mine and was killed, Steve took the blast. He was 22 and lost his eyes, as well as his fingers trying to protect his face. He was brought back to England, to a military hospital in Oxfordshire, and died two years later.

“It was such a terrible thing to see – VE Day always makes me sad,” said my Mum.

This is just one story that has been passed on through the years. One family devastated by war. There are so many more stories, so many heroes, so many families to be remembered.

Today we have a different generation of heroes, working to save lives in the NHS and care homes, and a terrible toll of lost loved ones.

It is a very different world 75 years on, with very different challenges, but we mustn’t forget that behind every statistic, there is a human tragedy.