St George’s Hospital: Celebrating the heroes of the NHS

BY TOBY PORTER toby@slpmedia.co.uk

The surgeons who make breakthroughs which keep patients alive get all the big headlines in the NHS.

But it is the less celebrated staff who bind the whole thing together.

Colin Davis has been doing that for 27 years, turfing out ruffians, taking little old ladies by the hand to their clinics and giving directions to the lost and worried.

He knows all the back ways around St George’s Hospital, Tooting, after decades of pacing its corridors to lock up rooms for the night; and delivering packages or wheelchairs to wards. And he’s not about to put his feet up.

Colin, 70, loves his job so much he has never taken his hospital trust pension or his state pension.

The only male member of the hospital’s reception staff reckons he has helped more than 200 distressed pregnant mums make those agonising last few paces to the delivery rooms.

But he went one step further than that six years ago. “Apparently I saved a baby’s life,” he revealed. “I was in reception and saw this distressed mother shaking her baby. I stopped her.

She was panicking. I put the baby on my shoulder and sort of winded him. He choked something up on my shoulder and I ran him to A&E. “He must have had something in his throat because a doctor came down later and told me I had saved it.

“But I didn’t want any fuss. I like helping people and this job gives you golden opportunities to do that.

“I must have taken more than 200 gasping pregnant mums up to the delivery suites – they always ask me because I know the shortcuts.

“I get lots of boxes of chocolates but I give them to the girls in my department because of my diabetes.”

But just as important is delivering patients safely and surely to their destination so that there they can receive the treatment which they need.

Colin knows all too well how vital the NHS was from the very first day. He was born two months before it was inaugurated in July 1948.

And at the age of four, the NHS was on hand when he needed it.

He was paddling in Hyde Park when he knelt on a fish hook which embedded itself in his skin. His mum tried to extract it herself but could not, so they went to the old St George’s Hospital to have it extracted.

“I’ve still got the scar on my left knee to show for it,” said Colin.

The father-of-three began his professional life issuing walking sticks and artificial limbs at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton – then as a publican at the Spread Eagle in Camden Town, north London.

That skill does come in handy. “But it does not kick off on a Saturday night like you see on Casualty on TV,” he said. “It is normally midweek that you get the unsociable behaviour.

“You have to be calm and firm but gentle and try to help people. “If it starts to get out of hand, I call security.”

He also worked as a bus conductor for 13 years, based in Merton, then Wandsworth, then Putney, travelling an estimated 60,000 miles. But he never learned to drive. “Seeing my mates come off buses after an eight-hour shift was enough,” he said.

“I have never owned a car. But I had been cycling since the age of eight and still do. “The furthest I have pedalled is 900 miles from Bordeaux to Barcelona over the pyrenees on a tandem with a blind person who would later be my second wife.”

By the time buses became 90 per cent driver-only, he knew it was time to look for another job, so he began at the Atkinson Morley Hospital in Wimbledon in 1991.

That was merged into St George’s in 2000, 20 years after St George’s itself had been moved from Hyde Park, combining, at the time, the 100-year-old Grove Fever Hospital (founded 1879) and 105-year-old Fountain Hospital (1875).

There was no special treatment when Colin had to have his own operations. “I took my place in the queue like everyone else,” he said. “That has changed over the years.

In the old days, you would see a consultant walking in after a round of golf and people had been waiting hours. “Now it is unusual to wait more than 15 minutes for your appointment at a clinic.”

He knows all the other dates, too, as a result of doing regular guided tours – the St James Wing was opened to replace St James’ Hospital in Balham.

Nurses, who had to quit if they got married, lived on site. “I would love to know what went on there in the 1960s and 1970s,” he laughed.

Colin clearly idolises the medical pioneers who made their names at St George’s, like Edward Jenner, who discovered the cowpox vaccine for smallpox in 1796.

“There should be a statue of him on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square,” said Colin. “He saved millions of lives. “Then there was John Hunter (1728-93) the father of modern surgery, who took the step of actually listening to his patients. The couch where he died is in our display here.

Then there was the comedian Harry Hill, who trained as a doctor here; and Henry Marsh Chapman, who wrote about his life here in his autobiography Do No Harm.”

Colin worked in security until 2008, then in portering after he began to suffer from diabetes. But two serious operations put a stop to his lifting and he was offered a job in reception.

“I know most people here because of the portering and now they go past me every day on their way to work,” he said.

“Surgery has changed, but not the fact that everyone still needs to be taken to theatre. “We all know each other and help out.

The chief executive said to us the other day, if he could bottle the atmosphere in our department, it would save the NHS.”

Colin tries to stay out of the debate about whether the NHS should get more money or not. “It is an amazing institution,” he said. “It is famous world-wide. “But it depresses me the way politicians argue about it.

It has been going 70 years and I hope it will for 70 more. “It takes you from the cradle to the grave – and that will certainly be my experience, though I don’t fancy popping off yet.

Does it need more money? Who knows? But it could certainly do with supporters as passionate and knowledgeable as Colin, at Government level.


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