IN 2011, as his homeland of Syria descended into a terrible civil war, “Doctor M”, somehow made his way to Britain, desperately seeking a new life for himself, his wife, and their two small children.

Nine years on, he will be back on a North-East hospital ward today, working hard to save lives, in the thick of the fight against coronavirus.

“We are not heroes. It is a risk doctors and nurses accept as part of their jobs – it is what we do. No, we are not heroes,” says Dr M, who still can’t be identified because of fears for other members of his family back home in Syria.

The last time I interviewed Dr M, we were free to speak face to face at North Tees General Hospital in Stockton. It was December 2018, the debate over immigration was raging as Britain stumbled chaotically towards Brexit, and he was about to work 11-hour shifts on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The objective of the interview was to illustrate the value of a pioneering initiative to provide humanitarian support for refugee doctors, and other healthcare professionals, while filling gaps in the NHS.

Called REPOD – the Resettlement Programme For Overseas Doctors and Health Care Professionals – it was established in 2016 as a partnership between North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, Health Education England (North-East) and a charity called Investing in People and Culture.

Medical professionals, who had fled their homelands to escape conflicts, were ending up scraping a living in jobs unsuited to their skills. It was a senseless waste at a time when the NHS couldn’t fill vacancies. REPOD aimed to put that right and Dr M was one of its early products.

Eighteen months later, Dr M is now working as a locum junior doctor, with ambitions to be a GP, and he is covering day and night shifts, at hospitals in Newcastle, Gateshead, and Durham. He goes wherever he’s needed – and the big need in recent weeks has been looking after Covid-19 patients on respiratory wards.

He recalls the shock at seeing his first coronavirus patient being brought in as the pandemic began to spread across Britain. “All I’d seen were the pictures from the media – in Italy and Spain – but suddenly it was here, and, yes, it was disturbing,” he says.

The patient was a 60-year-old man, who was “very sick” and required oxygen. As well as his concern for his patient, Dr M admits to being fearful – not just for his own safety but the welfare of his family.

“Every day, I would worry that if my family caught the virus, it would be me who was to blame,” he says. “But my wife and I had a long conversation and we accepted that it was something we had to face together.”

Naturally, he does his best to protect himself. In his experience, there have been no shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in any of the hospitals he has worked in, and he takes extreme care to bathe and clean his clothes as soon as he gets home from a shift.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the pandemic has been the fact that so many people have died without their loved ones being able to be with them. But while he understands how hard that is for families, he is honest enough to confess that it helps him to cope.

“The death of a patient is always emotional, but the absence of families removes that emotion, and that makes it easier to deal with,” he says.

Hopefully, the number of deaths will continue to decrease, but Dr M believes it is time for people to return to a level of normality.

“I think we should get on with our lives, and children should go back to school,” he says, firmly.

“We are dealing with a new virus and, scientifically, we should expect another peak, but I don’t think staying at home is the solution. Until we have a vaccine, it is here with us. That could be months or years, but we need to learn to adapt.”

Although he now lives on Tyneside, he still has lots of friends on Teesside, from his days being integrated into the NHS through REPOD, and he readily acknowledges the value of the scheme.

“It was definitely good for me, helping me to reach this point in my career, and I am glad to be in England because the situation in Syria is still unstable,” he says.

“I can see a future for my family here, but I can’t see a future in Syria – there it is just about focusing on finding something to eat every day. Here, if you work hard, you are appreciated and get what you deserve.”

So, how does he feel about the weekly “clap for carers” on Thursday nights? “It is nice when people say thank you and it gives you happiness but, as doctors, we have all the motivation we need, in seeing our patients survive and leave the hospital.”

His first Covid-19 patient, the 60-year-old man on oxygen, was one of those who survived under the care of a doctor who spirited his family away from a war-torn country and has ended up here in the North-East, engaged in a very different daily battle.

By all means applaud, but don’t call Dr M a hero. He insists he’s just doing his job, and his reward is seeing a patient get better.

MEANWHILE, this quote from Tottenham Hotspur manager Jose Mourinho caught my eye: “I am extremely proud of the way my players have maintained their fitness. They have shown great professionalism, passion, and dedication.”

Sorry, but isn’t that what they get paid massive amounts of money to do? Give me £1m a year and a home gym, and I’d have a good crack at staying fit too.

The Northern Echo:

IT was a surreal scene when I went down to Rockliffe Hall, in Hurworth-on-Tees, last week for the re-start of golf following the Government’s easing of the lockdown.

Well done to the hotel management for rightly taking health and safety so seriously, but we’ll look back in disbelief one day at the time when people turned up for a leisurely game of golf, to be greeted by staff in visors, masks and latex gloves.

The first pair to tee-off were Mick Abbott, from Sadberge, and Colin Eeles, from Hurworth. “Who won?” I asked. “The course,” groaned Mick.

Strange times but, when it comes to golf, some things will never change.

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, my favourite ‘funny’ of the week came from Haworth, Doncaster, where a fella was on the run from police and sought sanctuary in thick woodland.

He might have evaded capture but gave away his hiding place when he loudly broke wind.

I’m guessing he was let off with a caution.