As Sohier Elneil started her medical training, her father had one particular piece of advice for his daughter: ‘Do something to help women’, he urged.
Were he still alive today he would surely be bursting with pride, for she has not only lived up to his expectations, she must surely have far exceeded them.
And it’s in recognition of just how much she’s done for women that last night she was awarded the Daily Mail’s Health Hero award in association with Pharmacy2U, at a gala evening attended by the Prime Minister Theresa May, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, Professor Jane Cummings, Chief Nursing Officer for England, and other leading figures from across the NHS.
NHS Health Heroes finalists: Winner Sohier Elniel (seated) with runners-up Dr Susan Walker-Date, Mr Yakub Vali, Mr John Gaunt and Miss Amy Semper
As the Mail reports today, British women currently rank 18th out of 28 European countries for life expectancy because of the health struggles they face.
But Miss Elneil has spent her career doing all she can to challenge the painful realities behind statistics like those — for she is the surgeon who was prepared to listen when women started to complain that the tension-free vaginal tape that had been surgically inserted to help with incontinence or prolapse had left them in crippling pain.
While many others within the medical profession turned a blind eye, telling women the problem was ‘all in their mind’, ‘Suzy’, as she is known to her patients, listened — and decided to investigate.
She was one of the first to perfect a way to remove the mesh — a complex and difficult operation that involves painstakingly removing tiny shards of the tape which, in some cases, will have disintegrated into numerous pieces, each embedding deeply into the patient’s internal tissue.
This work has been on top of her role as a full-time consultant urogynaecological surgeon at University College London Hospital, specialising in treating women’s problems such as prolapse and incontinence.
Miss Elneil often operates late at night and works most weekends — she also hasn’t had a holiday in four years — simply to make herself available for the numerous women who seek her help.
One patient described desperately contacting her for help and Miss Elneil responding by email the next day — on Boxing Day.
Dr Elneil is a full-time consultant urogynaecol-ogical surgeon at University College London Hospital, specialising in treating women’s problems such as prolapse and incontinence
She feels that she must, as she explains: ‘The numbers of women wanting to see me are overwhelming. I’m trying my best to transform lives, but sometimes when I operate I feel bereft because when I see what has happened to a woman I know just how much she must have been suffering. I have seen women who are in so much pain as a result of their tape they feel suicidal.’
Such is the impact this remarkable surgeon has had on her patients’ lives that when the Daily Mail launched their hunt for the 2018 Health Hero of the year, it wasn’t just her patients from across the UK who inundated us with letters and emails in praise of her work, it was also their husbands.
‘Miss Elneil is the first consultant to actually help my wife,’ wrote one. ‘She is the most skilled, compassionate, wonderful, caring consultant I have ever met. She works tirelessly to help so many women who have been mutilated by mesh and they feel like their life has come to an end. She’s an angel.’
In a phrase that was repeated time and again, one patient said: ‘She was the only surgeon who listened to me after years of trying to get help for mesh pain.’
Retired accountant Lynne Sharman was particularly fulsome in her praise. ‘I can’t thank her enough for what she has done for me’ says Lynne, 62, who lives in Reading.
‘She has this air of calm and tranquility. I don’t think she ever sleeps as she has so much to do but if she is tired she doesn’t let it show.’
Behind every great woman! Her husband, a lawyer and childhood friend, is a tower of support
Miss Elneil is clearly touched by the reaction from her patients. ‘I get some lovely cards. Amazing letters from women thanking me,’ she says.
Yet she’s has also attracted a very different reaction from within her own profession, sometimes facing outright hostility from those who thought she was wrong to raise the issue of the tape in the first place.
Carl Hengan, a professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University, says: ‘It’s very difficult to stand firm when you’re going against a swathe of colleagues, who’ve used various ruses to undermine her — I’m sure it hurts. But it doesn’t stop her.’
Miss Elneil herself says there was never any question of giving up. ‘There was resistance, and some people thought “if we ignore her she might go away” but I wasn’t prepared to do that,’ she says with a glint in her eye.
The numbers of women wanting to see me are overwhelming. I have seen women who are in so much pain as a result of their tape they feel suicidal
Inevitably, her commitment and daunting work load have come at some cost to her home life. But her husband, a lawyer and a childhood friend, has been a tower of support.
‘We are lucky in that we have a lot of input from family and friends, and a lot of support,’ she says. She has tried to take one day off at weekends — but with a full general list as well as extra cases of tape removal — and her commitment to ensuring she trains other surgeons, to ensure she hands over her skills — there is barely time to breathe.
And then, of course, there is the research — last year, for example, she co-authored a report for the first time identifying the rate of complications among women given the mesh.
As vindication of her patients and her work — and the Mail’s long-running campaign on this issue — the NHS recently announced it would halt the use of the mesh for incontinence.
But anyone who thinks Miss Elneil has achieved all she wants to achieve would be mistaken — there are still many women who need their tape removed, and that’s not all.
‘I would like us to live in a world where women feel safe, where they feel they can talk to anyone about their health concerns and not be dismissed,’ she says.
‘I’d like to change that — I’ve passed the age barrier of 50 and I have so much more to do, and now so little time to do it.’
GP WHO GIVES ROUND-THE-CLOCK CARE
For 23 years, Bournemouth GP Dr Susan Walker-Date has offered the patients at her practice enviable continuity of care.
She’s always prided herself on being an old-fashioned family doctor, one who knows her patients well.
But the mother of five truly goes above and beyond — doing home visits on her days off and during lunch breaks, collecting patients’ prescriptions for them if they’re ill and alone, and sometimes delivering the medicines late at night.
The runners-up: Dr Susan Walker-Date, Mr Yakub Vali, Mr John Gaunt and Miss Amy Semper
Even while she’s on holiday she’ll ring with test results so, she says, patients aren’t left waiting and ‘worrying’. Her colleagues say she’s often at work before they arrive, and leaves after them.
When Lezzette Hession’s mother Kim was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015, Dr Walker-Date ‘never made her come into the surgery, she always visited her at home — even if it was after her other rounds had finished’.
‘I’ll never forget that on one occasion as Mum grew weaker, the doctor finished work late at 9pm and then drove to our house. She was such a comfort to my mother in her last weeks, visiting any time we rang. I’ve never known anybody so caring,’ says Lezzette.
All this extra work while also looking after her own family, including her disabled 20-year-old daughter, who has Rett syndrome, a rare neurological condition which affects brain development.
For many years Dr Walker-Date, 54, chaired the Rett UK Charity, campaigning for specialist clinics, running family weekends for those affected, fundraising and helping write the Rett care guidelines.
A report for the Care Quality Commission described her work on Rett as ‘outstanding’.
Susan decided to become a doctor aged eight after breaking her leg and watching hospital staff at work — winning a place at grammar school, she became the first in her family to go to university.
To her patients, including Ian Jones, who nominated her, she is a real-life Superwoman.
‘After 25 heart attacks and three strokes, I’m convinced Dr Walker-Date is the reason I’m still here,’ says Ian, a retired schools examinations officer. ‘I don’t know where she gets the incredible energy from. She’s a GP in a million.’
DEMENTIA CARER IS ‘SIMPLY THE BEST’
At AN age when others might be easing back a bit, John Gaunt, 89, spends two days a week as a volunteer on a dementia ward at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.
It’s demanding work, requiring skill and kindness which John dispenses by the bucketload, combined with a dedication and energy that make him unique, say his colleagues — and it’s why they nominated him for the Health Hero awards.
They described how John goes to great lengths to treat each patient as an individual, thoroughly researching their background to pull out information that might help him bring back memories and connect with that person.
Then, with a characteristic wave of his hands, he gets to work, listening and talking, singing, even dancing — whatever it takes to put patients at ease.
‘His charisma and charm truly brighten up the ward,’ says Danielle Wilde, who leads dementia care on the ward.
‘John is one of the most interesting and energetic colleagues I have ever worked with and the staff look forward to his visits as much as the patients do.’
‘He’s simply the best,’ adds Richard Scarth, who oversees the Royal Free Charity’s 900 volunteers. ‘I get more positive feedback about John than anyone.’
John arrives promptly for his shift at 9am and although he should clock off at 1pm is, despite his age, often still working late into the afternoon.
‘I’m not going to dash off home just because my shift is over,’ he says. ‘I go when I feel I have done what I can with my patients.’ Officially he works two days a week — but sometimes ends up working more.
John, who lost his wife Betty to Parkinson’s and cancer in 2000, was inspired to become a volunteer after visiting the hospital for radiotherapy for his prostate cancer four years ago. ‘I left it too long, so they can’t cure it,’ he says, matter-of-factly.
‘When I went in for my treatment I saw a sign asking for volunteers and thought, “I could do that”.’
The retired illustrator used to run his own stationery business, and adds: ‘When I was in business I would go home asking myself “why do I do this?” — but now I leave knowing I’ve helped make a real difference. It’s the best thing I have ever done.’
NURSE WHO’S A ROCK FOR HER PATIENTS
There is clearly something special about Amy Semper, the nurse who walked for three hours in the snow to get to work, did a double shift — 24 hours in all during that emergency — then walked home again.
Her colleagues and patients don’t need to be told how dedicated Amy is to her work.
As well as those snowbound days last winter, they know about the double shifts she does when the unit is short-staffed (she would rather work a double than allow patients to be put at risk, say her colleagues), and the extra hours after work she devotes to talking with patients or catching up on admin she’s delayed doing to spend time with them.
Sometimes she has to be told she must go home.
And then there are the simple but kind gestures: no birthday is forgotten, with Amy always arranging a cake for patients or staff, often baking it herself.
And her job is not an easy one, for Amy is a ward manager on a secure mental health unit, a ‘difficult environment’, as Jocelyn White, a senior manager at the Lincolnshire mental health unit where Amy works, describes it.
Yet year after year, Amy, who is 27, has forsaken Christmas with her own close-knit family to spend the day at the unit, arriving early to prepare festive treats.
She also takes patients for home visits to see their loved ones (for some this can be for the first time in years). ‘She helped make me part of my family again,’ says one grateful patient. Another said simply: ‘Amy has changed my life.’
When asked about her willingness to go the extra mile Amy says: ‘People need to feel supported, and that’s what I want to do — I want to be their rock while they are going through this bad time, and I will do whatever I have to do to help them through.’
‘And it really pays dividends — one of my ex-patients is training to be a vet,’ she says with pride.
CLEANER WITH A HEART OF GOLD
how much Yakub Vali, 53, means to patients and staff can be seen from the scores of thank you cards the father of three has at the home he shares with wife Maimuna, 53.
Some of the writing may be shaky, but the gratitude and love is clear.
As Yvonne Jeanes, the lead physiotherapist at the specialist stroke unit at Royal Preston Hospital in
Lancashire where he works, explains: ‘Yakub is such a gorgeous person — the entire ward, patients and staff, just love him. I can’t tell you the difference that he makes.’
This much-loved figure isn’t a medic, a nurse or a physio, but a cleaner.
That he’s good at the work he’s employed to do is immediately evident when you arrive on the ward.
‘Families always comment on how clean it is,’ says Yvonne — indeed he’s credited with playing a key role in helping reduce infection rates on the ward.
‘When Yakub’s on holiday it takes three people to do his job, and the ward still doesn’t look as good,’ adds Yvonne, ‘Yakub just never stops.’
But he’s even more distinguished by the way he performs his unofficial duties. Yakub, who moved to the UK aged 16 from a small village in India and has never had a day off sick in 13 years, starts his 7am shift by checking on each patient to see if they need anything.
He’s constantly on the look-out for patients, fetching endless cups of tea, or calling for a nurse if someone can’t reach their buzzer.
‘Recently, a lady who was recovering from hip surgery fell in the middle of the ward — Yakub was cleaning a table and somehow reached her and caught her with lightning reflexes,’ says Yvonne.
‘He saved her from another serious hip fracture and in doing so, potentially saved her life.’
When patients are discharged, he makes it his duty to wave them off — and his daughter says that when he arrives home at night, Yakub talks non-stop about the patients and how they progressed, who left the ward, who is doing well or anyone he is worried about.
To the staff, he is another pair of hands who is a vital part of the team, and often acts as physio assistant, taking patients by their arm to help them walk, and encouraging them all the way.
At Christmas, Yakub arrives at the ward with chocolates and sweets for patients and staff alike.
‘He is the most conscientious, courteous, humble and helpful member of staff on the ward,’ says Yvonne. ‘He is definitely our hero!’
Additional reporting: AMANDA CABLE