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NHS 70: Family of first-ever NHS patient Sylvia Diggory on their fears for the ‘noble institution’

Retired Malton GP Dr Clive Diggory and sons George and Ted,  ,  whose mother Sylvia Diggory was the first ever patient to be treated on the NHS when she was 13 years old.  Picture Bruce Rollinson
Retired Malton GP Dr Clive Diggory and sons George and Ted, , whose mother Sylvia Diggory was the first ever patient to be treated on the NHS when she was 13 years old. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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She was just 13 years old when she became the first patient to be seen on the newly-formed NHS on July 5, 1948, and became a life-long champion of everything the institution stands for - so much so, that Sylvia Diggory’s son, and grandsons, became doctors.

But 70 years on, Dr Clive Diggory, the son for whom Mrs Diggory sent off an application to medical school without his knowledge, and who went on to spend more than 30 years as a GP in Malton, North Yorkshire, said his mother would be “rotating rapidly in her grave” if she saw what had become of her beloved NHS in recent years under the stewardship of Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Aneurin Bevan meets a 13-year-old Sylvia Beckingham in hospital on the day he inaugurated the NHS

Aneurin Bevan meets a 13-year-old Sylvia Beckingham in hospital on the day he inaugurated the NHS

And her grandsons are fearful of what the future holds.

Dr Diggory, who retired last year, said: “It is a very overused word, ‘passionate’, but she was very passionate about the National Health Service.

“I had wanted to become an engineer like my father, and it was while I was away on a football holiday that the application for medical school came through. I usually did what she said - and so later I went off to medical school in Manchester.

“As soon as I became a junior doctor, I became very-much an ‘NHS man’ - and I’m sure if you asked anyone else working at the time, they’d say the same thing. But I think latterly things have changed. Over the last 10 years the degeneration in the attitude of NHS workers towards the institution as it has become politicised and moved away for its objectives.”

The Diggory doctors at the family home in Malton.  Picture Bruce Rollinson

The Diggory doctors at the family home in Malton. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Dr Diggory, 58, describes PFI, the system of private financing for the building and running of NHS hospitals and buildings, as a “unmitigated disaster”, and that the split up of primary care - giving Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) responsibility for general practice - has seen a “huge tranche” of healthcare money squandered.

“What I saw, as a partner in the biggest practice in Ryedale, was CCG managers - who were great, pro-NHS people, and talented - wasted on a system that had no other purpose that to be decisive, straining and splintering care that has been the bedrock of the NHS since 1946.”

For the NHS to have a future, Dr Diggory believes it needs to be removed from political control, much in the way the Bank of England was given policy independence in 1997.

“If the Department of Health was not full of political appointees and was instead full of people who got there on merit, it would progress,” Dr Diggory said.

Aneurin Bevan meets a 13-year-old Sylvia Beckingham in hospital on the day he inaugurated the NHS

Aneurin Bevan meets a 13-year-old Sylvia Beckingham in hospital on the day he inaugurated the NHS

“The Health Service is too precious a commodity to be left in the hands of politicians. I am sure my mother would be rotating rapidly in her grave if she saw the carry of with Hunt today.”

With their grandmother’s history, a GP for a father, and a gastroenterologist for a mother - Dr Diggory’s wife Tina, who practiced in Hull - some may think it was inevitable that Ted and George Diggory would also end up in medicine. George, 29, is now a junior doctor at York District Hospital, while younger brother Ted, 27, moved to Copenhagen after qualifying as a doctor to live with his Danish wife, a nurse.

Dr George Diggory, who has recently been accepted onto the GP training scheme, said growing up the son of two doctors gave him a “pretty good idea” of what to expect from a career in the NHS, with his parents missing Christmases, having “plenty of sleepless nights” and “being put through the ringer” - but he is very much dedicated to the institution - and rejects the thought of going into private practice.

He said: “Like most 70 year olds, it has its good days and bad days. But the rate of increase in the expectations of patients has far exceeded the increase in funding.

“Since 2008, when the public purse strings got tighter, things like waiting times have gone up but overall, people are living longer and we are able to do more than we ever have before.

“For me, private medicine as a concept is farcical - and I don’t think anybody wants to see patients being charged.”

For his brother, who describes the NHS as “the most noble institution in the world”, working in a busy A&E department in Oldham, at the “sharp end of the NHS” saw his frustrations grow.

Dr Ted Diggory said: “We saw massive numbers of increased attendances but with no way of dealing with it - no extra staff, no extra beds. The corridors would be full of people waiting to be seen.

“We used to say, something will only be done when someone dies on a corridor waiting to see a doctor - but that time has come and gone.

“My biggest worry is that people will think ‘it’s not working, let’s try private services, private contractors’ - once that happens, it will be extremely difficult to go back.

“My grandmother was a huge believer in the NHS and her zeal for it was passed down to us.

“But I think we are at a knife edge. This is breaking point. The seams are stretched and some services have already haemorrhaged.”

Sylvia’s story

Then Sylvia Beckingham, the 13-year-old had been in Manchester’s Park Hospital for 18 months with a kidney complaint when on July 5, 1948, Health Minister Anuerin ‘Nye’ Bevan visited and inaugurated the National Health Service.

When they retired, Sylvia and her husband moved Malton, where their son Clive was a GP. She died in 2006, still a fervent supporter of the institution she was so passionate about, and shaped the lives of her family.

Dr Clive Diggory said: “Anybody in hospital at that time (in 1948) must have been fantastically relieved. It was a huge worry to be in for a long stay with something complicated.”