It is our proudest achievement as a country and its extraordinary staff are by our side during our happiest and most heartbreaking moments.
And last Monday, to celebrate the National Health Service’s 70th birthday, the first ever NHS Heroes Awards, brought to you by ITV and the Mirror, proudly gave our most treasured institution and its extraordinary people the recognition it so deserves.
The show airs on ITV tonight (Monday) at 8.30pm.
NHS founder, Labour Minister of Health Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, was the guest everyone wished was there.
Trailblazing Averil Mansfield CBE – who in 1993 became the first female professor of surgery – was presented with the Aneurin Bevan Lifetime Achievement Award by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
“I’m not a hero,” Averil protested.
Camilla, in dazzling blue, shook her head. She said: “I not only want to say thank you to this wonderful lady here, but I would also like to say a huge thank you to all of you who work so tirelessly for the wonderful NHS, you are all heroes and I salute you all.”
Actor and activist Michael Sheen quoted Bevan on stage, saying: “We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders.”
And we met Aneira Thomas, who was born on the very first day of the NHS in Bevan’s South Wales.
“They told my mum to stop pushing so I could be the first baby born into the NHS,” she said. Host Paul O’Grady said Bevan had designed an NHS “that was free for everyone and not just for the wealthy. Let’s hope it remains that way”.
The health service’s first patient, Sylvia Beckingham, was admitted to hospital in Manchester to be treated for a liver condition on July 5, 1948.
Since then, the institution has grown to treat one million patients every 36 hours.
But tonight’s ceremony showed how, in all the important ways, our NHS is still so much the same.
Last year, Freya Lewis, 15, was treated at Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital with the same skill, kindness and dignity as Sylvia when she was seriously injured in the Manchester Arena bombing that killed her best friend.
Freya was honoured for raising £27,000 to repay the hospital that saved her life. Mum Alison said: “We owe her life to Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, which is why we are doing everything we can to help them – and will do for the rest of our lives.”
The red carpet at our awards was overflowing with other heroes, from pioneering surgeons to emergency medics and campaigning volunteers.
How proud Bevan, who dreamed up our NHS out of the rubble of the Second World War, would have been.
As a humbled Prince William told the audience in a pre-recorded address: “Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the NHS is its people – we owe you all a huge thank you.”
Tonight was about the human stories behind the flashing of blue lights, the trolleys dashing through corridors, the long, painstaking hours of surgery and the moments lives are lost or saved.
Stories like that of trauma surgeon Martin Griffiths, who left a family barbecue to save the life of Richard Livett, the first London Bridge terror attack victim to reach hospital.
In his daily work, Martin treats 700 stab victims a year, but he grew so tired and saddened at stitching children back together that he now also leads an innovative scheme to break the cycle of youth violence.
He said: “ We are not just a hospital.
“We are a place of safety, advice and a beacon of hope.”
Teenager Lewis Hine survived 13 operations to treat a brain tumour, but struggled with the loneliness common to children who are in and out of hospital.
So he set up a charity to help young patients make friends. As he went to accept the award on the night from his hero Tinie Tempah, he was given a video message from Sir Elton John who said: “You are an inspiration to me and millions of other young people. You are an amazing young man and I love you.”
Lynn Lucas’s teenage son Chris died of a rare cancer but her tireless fundraising has paid the salary of two medical researchers at Royal Marsden Hospital, Surrey, for the past 12 years.
Mechanic Errol McKellar survived cancer thanks to a lucky check – and now offers discounts to customers who get their prostate an MOT.
Also recognised was Scottish midwife Betty Macintyre, still delivering Western Isles babies – despite being the same age as the NHS.
Tonight honoured the pioneers at the cutting edge of modern medicine, including the team at Royal Papworth Hospital, Cambs, who carried out the first transplant in Europe to use a non-beating heart.
Since a landmark first case in 2015, the team has performed 43 such operations, increasing the number of heart transplants performed at Papworth by a third to more than 100 a year.
The awards highlighted the achievements of NHS sexual health workers like Sara Rowbotham, whose campaign and care for victims of the Rochdale grooming scandal led to the conviction of nine child abusers. And they rewarded the often unseen work done by cleaners, porters and other staff.
Men like Willie Shields, 71, who was recognised for the half a century he has spent sterilising equipment used in life-saving surgery at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
And Margaret Taylor, 78, who has been a vital presence behind the sweet trolley at Pinderfields hospital in West Yorkshire for
Also honoured were those who care for the carers – paramedics Dan Farnworth and Rich Morton who set up an organisation, Our Blue Light, to support emergency workers with mental health problems.
Perhaps even a visionary like Bevan could not have imagined the modern NHS – with a budget of over £100billion. But he knew it would be full of exceptional human beings coming together under the embrace of an NHS.
Holding a copy of the leaflet that launched the health service, Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said he would “like to say an extra ‘thank you’ to The Mirror and ITV for coming together to show the NHS is valued as much – if not more – today than it was seven decades ago”.
Bevan is often misquoted as saying: “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it.”
It was from a TV play – but persists because it sounds and feels so true.
On tonight’s evidence, the NHS will be around for a long, long time.
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