Champion footballer, award-winning sheep farmer and one of Britain's leading mah-jong players, meet the NHS staff at Leeds hospitals in podcast Heroes Unmasked

A new podcast from a leading Yorkshire health trust is shining a light on the staff who save lives – and have their own fascinating stories to tell. Andrew Vine reports.

THEY were the heroes of the pandemic – the NHS staff who worked themselves to exhaustion caring for patients as hospitals were pushed to breaking point. As millions applauded them every Thursday evening during the darkest days of the first lockdown, the country wondered how on earth health service staff managed to keep going in the face of the worst onslaught of illness in living memory. What made them tick?

Now a new podcast series from a Yorkshire hospital trust that is one of Europe’s largest aims to answer that question by giving some of its 20,000 staff the chance to tell their own stories, not only about the pandemic, but of their lives and passions outside work. Heroes Unmasked, from the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, has just launched its second series after a hugely successful initial run earlier this year.

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Georgie Duncan (middle) features in the podcast series. Pictures: Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust

The life stories that the staff have to tell are astonishing in their breadth and variety. They include the consultant dermatologist to the England men’s and women’s cricket teams, a former fighter pilot, a champion female footballer, an award-winning sheep farmer and one of Britain’s leading mah-jong players.

Heroes Unmasked was the idea of the trust’s senior communications manager, Lindsey Porter, as a way of helping staff to reconnect with each other after the separations and restrictions of the pandemic, and also to give the public an insight into the people who care for them when they most need it.

Lindsey says: “Everybody was talking about these NHS heroes, and our staff were saying, ‘We’re just normal people doing our jobs’, so we wanted to go behind the scenes and ask, ‘Who are these people who care for you?’

“It’s them saying, ‘I’m a person with interests and passions’, it’s giving them more depth. The NHS heroes thing had been brilliant at boosting esteem amongst staff, but actually our aim was to say these are lovely, interesting people who do a job that they’re passionate about.

Olivia Smart, who plays for Leeds Utd Women. Pictures: Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust

“We are always communicating with our staff to make our engagement better. What we were seeing from our surveys of staff is that people were feeling really disconnected as a result of the pandemic.

“They couldn’t work in their teams, they couldn’t socialise, they couldn’t even have lunch together. We felt that as a communications team we were regularly sending out information that you have to wear masks, you have to be lateral flow testing, and we felt we were missing brilliant content that we had before pandemic times about people’s success stories.

“So we started to think about how can we help people reconnect, how we can bring these stories to life. The people who were telling these stories came back and said, ‘Thank you for giving me this opportunity, it really felt like I had a moment to talk’. People were saying how it made them feel they knew their colleagues better.”

One of the things that set Lindsey thinking about the stories staff had to tell was chatting to a security manager, who told her how he had suffered a heart attack whilst at work and needed surgery.

“I could have stood and talked to him for so long, but I just thought there must be more people like you who want to share their stories, so as a team we started reaching out to our staff and saying we want to launch this podcast series, does anyone have anything they would like to share?”

The stories started coming in, and revealed an extraordinary range of talents, interests and backgrounds.

There is outpatient general manager Richard Moyes, a former fighter pilot, who talks about flying a mile in five seconds, when the G-force he experienced squashed his heart and internal organs pear-shaped. The city’s passion for football is embodied by Olivia Smart, advanced practitioner in the liver transplant team, who is a defender for Leeds Utd Women.

Then there is clinical trials co-ordinator George Twigg, who took up mah-jong during lockdown and now plays for Britain, and consultant neurologist Agam Jung – one of the people behind the Rob Burrow Centre for Motor Neurone Disease appeal – who spent three months living in a leper colony. Another of the podcasters is consultant dermatological surgeon Walayat Hussain, who has been with the trust for 11 years.

For the past eight years, he has looked after the skin health of England’s elite cricketers. He says: “I’m a skin cancer doctor, and one thing I do is look after the England cricket teams from a dermatology viewpoint, checking their skin a few times a year, both the men’s and the women’s teams, because they’re exposed to a lot of sun, to make sure they’re kept safe. With all the elite sports, they have a lot of infrastructure in looking after their general health and wellbeing.

“The reason I did the podcast is that it’s nice for people in the place that you work to know a bit more about you outside medicine. Showing different sides to the people that you work with is good for team morale...I find it really important that people realise you’re a human with the same concerns and aspirations as everyone else.”

One of the future podcasts will be from Georgie Duncan, deputy chief clinical infomatics officer, who has worked for the trust for 25 years. For her, it’s a chance to talk not just about her job, but also about her passion for volunteering and how getting people involved in their communities is good for everybody.

Georgie says: “I talked a little bit about my role, but also some of the things I’m interested in. I’m very interested in volunteering outside work. I’ve been a school governor, I also volunteer a lot at Park Run, either marshalling or timing the children.

“The bit I’m really passionate about is how we give back to the community we all live in, to make it wholesome and inclusive, but also supporting people’s mental health and supporting vulnerable people. I talked a lot about my desire to encourage others to volunteer. It doesn’t have to be a full time job, it can be small things that we can all do to help other people.”

The podcast has brought trust staff together, Georgie adds. “I’ve listened to them, and people that I know have done things that I was never aware of. It’s the human element of colleagues. Since the pandemic, more people are working from home, or do blended working, and those corridor conversations that you might have had with people might not take place.

“It’s about learning about whether you might have shared interests and it’s a showcase for the diversity of our workforce and the things that people are interested in and it might open avenues that others want to try. It’s a really lovely, informal way of sharing and just learning a little bit more about people.”

Each episode is introduced by well-known Yorkshire broadcaster Caroline Verdon. The first series was launched in January.

Amongst the other trust staff who have told their stories are Megan Holmes, a play specialist in the paediatric intensive care unit of Leeds Children’s Hospital who is also a champion sheep farmer and personal safety trainer Mark O’Byrne, who is former Royal Navy submariner.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals – which includes St James’s Hospital and Leeds General Infirmary - is one the largest and busiest acute hospital trusts in Europe.