As part of our celebration of International Women’s Day 2020, we asked women who worked across the Trust to share their stories.
Seven Ages of an NHS Woman – Dr Maggie Helliwell
The reference in the title is to Shakespeare. In ‘As You Like It’ he graphically describes the seven Ages of Man from infant to old man ‘ sans eyes , sans teeth, sans everything’ and that passage of time ends at three score years and ten (a milestone I passed last year) Of course 70 is the new 40 but this famous passage can be used to describe my life and career in the NHS . I have adapted the categories to fully reflect the female perspective. Essentially my career has been one of serendipity.
Infant, mewling and puking
There were no connections to the NHS in my family. Both my parents were librarians but my mother had had to leave her post in 1947 in the middle of advanced library qualifications in order to marry my father – she had had to choose. Though her brother had gone to University her father had refused to support her in equivalent studies at 16 and she had had to find a job. She therefore wanted for me what she had always wanted, the opportunity to go to University and to have the career opportunities that she had never had. For some unfathomable reason I always wanted to be a doctor – stated by me from when I was about 6 – I actually think my parents whispered in my ears when I was asleep as no -one was ever ill, we didn’t have a TV until I left for medical school so I wasn’t exposed to Emergency Ward 10 or Dr Kildare and though we were voracious readers (later in life my mother wrote 33 historical Mills and Boon romances – another story) at that time the doctor /nurse romantic novels were considered ‘ beneath us’ (and of course all the doctors in those stories were handsome, enigmatic men).
Whining Schoolboy aka bright-faced girl going reluctantly to school
I passed the 11 plus and went to an all-girls grammar school run by spinster teachers and a spinster head which provided an amazing all round education. I applied for medical school, was asked sexist questions at both my interviews (Birmingham and Westminster) ‘…and are you going to get married’? but got into Westminster, a very small Medical School, which has now been subsumed into Imperial via Charing Cross. I am embarrassed to say that now I probably wouldn’t get into medicine, my O and A levels weren’t great but at interview the medical school accepted me on an unconditional offer – no grades were required. I loved my time in London, I did my preclinical at Kings in the Strand, paying 4 guineas a week for bed, breakfast and an evening meal in Clapham with a family I still regularly see ( my grant was £300 pounds a year ).
I did an intercollated Pharmacology degree at Kings before going to Westminster for my clinical attachment. There as well as qualifying as a doctor in 1973 and playing an organising role in the annual Westminster Arts Festival I met my future husband, as he was Captain of the water polo club and I was the secretary. Westminster was a very small medical school, there were only 20 students in my intake, consequently there was nowhere to hide, all our teachers and consultants knew us well and I always reckon as a result I received excellent training.
Lover and Soldier ‘sighing like a furnace’ aka a Doctor and Mother (and Airedale parts 1 and 2)
My first house job, (FY1 ), was in surgery in Chichester. In those days everyone stayed in hospital much longer, hernias 10 days, gall bladders 2 weeks , there was no laparoscopic surgery, and I was given lunch from the communal ward meal trolley by the kindly ward sister. I performed a few operations (under strict supervision !), including hernias, appendectomies and varicose veins and worked a one in 2 rota. My future husband was Yorkshire-born (in Micklethwaite) and bred (in Bingley) so I came to Airedale in 1974 to complete my first year as a medical houseman on Ward 1 with Dr Jim Fountain. I then did 18 months of paediatrics in Leeds and Airedale (Ken Wilkinson was the senior SHO and David Morgan the only consultant). During that time I became ill with viral hepatitis and got pregnant with my son. This was also the time of junior doctor strikes and minimal pay for on call duties so my husband and I decided to go abroad. We travelled overland to Australia from 20- 30 weeks of pregnancy, encompassing hippie buses to Kathmandu, mountain trains in Nepal, third class railways in Indonesia, a diet of pineapples and kao pad in Thailand and a final bus trip across the Nullabor desert in Australia. My son arrived unscathed in Adelaide 3 months later. I kept up my medical registration and did a few sessions in general practice. After 18 months in Australia we went to New Zealand for a year. We lived in Dunedin and Palmerston North. I got a very part time job in rehabilitation medicine. I would have happily stayed in the Antipodes I loved the weather and the outdoor life but I am married to a Yorkshireman who wanted to return, so we did in 1979.
On our return I had my second pregnancy, this time planned, and my daughter (40 this year) was born in Airedale. Prior to and after her birth I had worked part time in community paediatrics. My husband had had difficulty getting back on the hospital career ladder – our sabbatical had been self-arranged and on return he could get locums but was considered too well qualified for registrar jobs and didn’t have the current right connections for the senior registrar positions, so he decided to retrain as a GP. A partnership came up in Keighley at Ling House, 4 months before he finished training, and starting 10 days before all new GPs had to undergo an approved training scheme – we offered ourselves as a job share – great for childcare – and the senior partner took the risk of appointing us with me starting our job full time for those first 4 months, even though I had had no specific GP training. This was a baptism of fire. I still feel my excellent basic medical school and house officer training at Airedale, the rehab post , the 2 years of hospital and community paediatrics , plus a quick grasp of the 28 times table got me through. I stayed 36 years. When my husband returned to hospital medicine (he is still working as an academic professor and clinical consultant) I job-shared with 2 female doctors before finally becoming full time. One of the biggest changes through this time was the introduction and increased sophistication of the mobile phone. This started as a brick which wouldn’t work in the valleys to a pocket beck and call device but replaced the need for ‘a wife’ to take all the messages when on call.
In the mid-1990s an enterprising and far-sighted GP Keith England from Kilmeny House saw the opportunity that a community-based GP fund holding scheme (the precursor of modern commissioning) could bring to Airedale. He invited all the GP practices in Keighley to a joint meeting. I was still working part time so I went and my career gradually took a different path. I became Chair of the Worth Valley Health Consortium, a post that led seamlessly into being the Chair of the Airedale Primary Care Group and the clinical lead of the Primary Care Trust (as the various NHS reorganisations wended their merry way). All through the changes I kept up a half time general practice career. 10 years later I had majored in commissioning and contracting, quality, clinical governance and performance and co-led the tender for SystmOne.
Justice ‘full of wise saws and modern instances’ aka a national career and a return to Airedale part 3
My dual role meant that I had unique experience of working as a primary care clinician and manager. The Department of Health were looking for a team of GP Advisers, I applied and was appointed. I worked on the National Service Framework for Neurological Conditions and even wrote a chapter, I was on the Board of the National Prescribing Centre, and on advisory Committees for the start of non-medical prescribing and the management of controlled drugs. Whilst I was carrying out this work more NHS reorganisation was taking place which was changing the locality focus. I decided to relinquish my PCT role; I was based in Douglas Mill in Bradford and hated the daily travelling. I went to 2 interviews in the same week , Deputy Medical Director of Airedale and the clinical Board Member of NICE ( the National Institute of Clinical Excellence ) and I was offered and took both . It meant that I had to reduce my GP commitment to 3 sessions and I was very lucky that my practice agreed. Both new posts were fascinating and stretching. I built up the Airedale role and supported the clinical governance team, was Caldecott Guardian, developed doctors’ appraisals and supported Dr Richard Pope in performance issues. I also got to know a great number of the wonderful front line professionals. After 2 years on NICE I was offered the role of Vice Chair and reluctantly decided I had to give up my role at Airedale. The main task of the Vice Chair of NICE was to lead the Appeal process against Technological Appraisal decisions – a task that involved assessing pages of clinical and economic cost effective evidence whilst liaising with a London lawyer as the reasonableness and fairness of NICE’s decision. Luckily my decisions within this process never led to NICE facing judicial review on my watch, a very expensive consequence. I also learnt how to interview: I appointed Directors of Nice and Chairs and members of a large number of NICE’s guideline committees. I loved my 8 years on NICE, I had wonderful colleagues supported by expert technical advice from the NICE staff and travelled all over the country.
I retired from clinical practice in the same year I left NICE
‘Retirement’ and return to Airedale part 4
I had been retired for a year when I was approached by head hunters to fill a vacant position on Airedale’s Board. I didn’t need any prompting to apply! It felt like coming home and my whole career in the Airedale Community has come full circle. Needless to say I have loved and have been ‘right proud’ to contribute to the hospital’s success and use my skills and local experience on your behalf. My main role has been supporting the Quality and Safety team in strengthening clinical governance across the hospital. I will finally complete my tenure this June but I will keep in touch.
‘Second childishness and mere oblivion’ aka Feisty Grandmother and Creative Crafter!
We go back to my mother (and my father) for the conclusion of this story. I was always encouraged to be an ‘all-rounder’ in sport and creative arts as well as my career. I played percussion in the school and university orchestra including timpani, side drum, glockenspiel, cymbals, tubular bells, triangle, tambourine and horses hooves. When asked at my medical school interview in 1966 ‘how come you started to play percussion’ I replied ‘they wanted someone who could read music and count.’ My father played competitive rugby and tennis and my mother was a good table tennis player. I have represented 2 counties and been a county champion in 2 sports, swimming as a young woman and 10 pin bowling as a veteran. I still play in a 10 pin bowling league every Thursday morning. I played team club tennis into my sixties. My mother was a keen sewer, knitter and embroiderer and taught me all those skills. I used to make my own clothes and I still knit, quilt and do cross stitch and tapestry and as the daughter of 2 librarians I still love to read – if it were an addiction I would be a chronic case. I go walking in the Lake District most weekends. I have 4 lovely grandchildren and my 16 month old granddaughter loves her swimming lessons and already charges about the pool (admittedly with arm bands) but without her mum – just like her grandmother.
What’s my message for women contemplating a career in the NHS? Go for it! Try and take every opportunity – you don’t know where it might lead you. General practice was a wonderful career, getting to hear the stories from 5 generations of every type of family over 36 years and try to help them was the best career a woman could have . Childcare can be hard but when I wasn’t working I did as much as possible with my kids when they were younger – for example we went 10 pin bowling as a family and we all (including my husband) played in a league together and they both played for Yorkshire as juniors and I supported them as much as I could. If you can find a supportive partner they are worth their weight in gold. Job sharing worked for me when the kids were small. Leave the work at work if you can. Always know that you are part of a great team and work with everyone – try and keep the hierarchies as flat as possible, whatever our title and skills we all make great contributions for our patients. Listen and talk to your team and listen and talk to your patients – they will all help you succeed.
Maggie Helliwell 02 03 2020