Growing up in the NHS: a doctor's story

Dr Nitha Naqvi
By Dr Nitha Naqvi     04/07/2018

My journey with the NHS started before I was born.

Fifty years ago, my father, Dr Nayyar Naqvi, came to the UK. After his first job in Wolverhampton he became a senior house officer in medicine at Wigan Royal Infirmary.

He married my mum, Nasreen, who is also a doctor, in 1970.

I was born in the 1970s when both my parents were working full-time for the NHS, away from family in Pakistan who could have helped.

They were each working an average of a 100 hours a week and we lived in staff accommodation in the hospital.

My parents didn’t know what to do with me when they were working. So, my father did what everyone does if they have a problem – he asked the nurse in charge on the ward what to do.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “My sister will look after your baby!”

My ‘Auntie’ Frances (my beloved childminder) lived around the corner from the hospital. I spent many happy years of my early life with her family – they were basically my second family. Her mum was ‘Nana’ to me, I called her dad ‘Grandad’. I had a lovely early childhood with them – feeding the ducks in the park daily and watching Wigan Athletic football matches at the weekend.

We lived in hospital accommodation until I was nine years old. When my parents’ jobs moved hospital, we all moved together.

It was fantastic. I had the best childhood. There was tremendous camaraderie between all the staff.

Lots of doctors were in the same position – juggling long hours with raising young families – so I had plenty of children to play with. I’d stay at friends’ houses if my parents were working the night and they would stay at mine when their doctor parents were on call.

All in all, I lived in five different hospitals during my childhood: Wigan, Billinge, Leigh, and Whelley hospitals in the north west and St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

Hospital life

Not having our own home might have been tricky in some ways, but there were compensations. I used to have fantastic birthday parties.

My parents – who hadn’t been brought up in the UK – just assumed we should invite the whole school, rather than just my class, to each birthday. We’d have these huge parties in the hospital canteen. They were really fun times!

Christmas was a magical time too. My dad would take me to visit all the wards to say hello to the people who had to stay in over the holidays. I loved it.

Although the NHS wasn’t as busy as it is now, it was stressful for the doctors. As a senior house officer, my parents would have to make clinical decisions alone, as often there wasn’t even a consultant on call. At night he was sometimes the only doctor in the hospital.

On the other hand, there was a different kind of support. There was a common room where the doctors would eat and relax with a snooker table. My mum could leave me there for the odd half an hour or so if there was a gap in her childcare. The other doctors would keep an eye on me and feed me.

My parents made the decision that my mum would stay up north to work, and I would stay with her: they felt that continuing to move around a lot would be to the detriment of my schooling; I had already attended three different schools in my first few years of education.

So, sometimes the family was all together and we’d have a flat. But when my dad worked in London or Manchester, I’d just be living in a single room with my mum.

This wasn’t an issue and I was always very happy, but it was difficult was when my dad got a job at St Thomas’ Hospital in London for a year. I would only see him the weekends when he wasn’t on call. Dad remembers it as being very hard.

He was living in a single room in Lambeth Hospital, which is now part of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. My mum and I were still living in Lancashire in Billinge Hospital accommodation. I would cry whenever he had to leave. It was quite tough – but the good memories of my NHS childhood have more than made up for this.

Becoming a doctor

My father loves his job as a cardiologist – and he always wanted me to become one too.

He decided he would like me to become a paediatric cardiologist after a frightening incident when I was a toddler.

He received a phone call from my childminder, Auntie Frances. She was crying – then she managed to get the words out. She said: “Nitha’s died.”

My father ran to his car and raced over to the childminder’s house – obviously I hadn’t actually died.

I’d had a febrile convulsion and I was completely limp. She was very frightened. Then I started to cry. They’d got hold of my mum by now she was crying too. Everyone was crying.

My dad rushed me to the hospital. This paediatrician took me and started patting me – and magically, I stopped crying.

My father had a lightbulb moment. He thought: ‘These paediatricians are marvellous, aren’t they? I think Nitha should become a paediatric cardiologist!’

When I was seven years old, and my dad was at St Thomas’, we went to stay with him in hospital accommodation in the summer.

One day outside St Thomas’ hospital my dad said: “I would love it if you came to work here.”

I replied: “OK, I promise I will.”

Starting as a doctor

And, more than ten years later, I went to medical school at that same hospital and lived in hospital accommodation just across the road from where I had lived as a child.

My first job was also in that same hospital. On my first day as a terrified, newly-qualified doctor, I was put on call. I went ward to ward with a list of jobs and patients to see.

At 3 in the morning, I went to one ward looking exhausted. There was such a lovely nurse there and he said, “Are you OK? Have you eaten anything today?”

I hadn’t.

He said, “Don’t worry because I’ve got a Snickers bar in my bag and I’m going to make you a cup of tea.”

Then I spotted one of the patients talking on the ward phone – this was before mobile phones – he was shouting: “And NOW she’s just sitting there having a Snickers bar – while I’m dying!”

It was only later that I discovered that this patient has been bitten by a snake in Brazil and had been flown back to the UK as an emergency to receive anti-venom medication.

He had been waiting for many hours for a drip to receive the lifesaving treatment but I didn’t know that – I was just doing all of my jobs, going ward to ward, and he was on the last ward.

Worse still, when I treated him, I discovered this man was an editor of a national newspaper! My career was almost over before it began.

I called my dad: I said “I’m going to get struck off on the first day AND be on the front page of every newspaper. This man’s going to die.”

Dad said: “Don’t worry, welcome to the NHS!”

Thankfully, my patient made a good recovery. Everything was fine.

Love in the NHS

A few weeks after starting as house officer, I was in the lift at St Thomas’.

I noticed this guy had the coolest stethoscope. It was square and it had a platinum edge instead of silver. Amazing!

Being from up north, I hadn’t really caught on to the fact that chatting in lifts isn’t the ‘done’ thing in London. I told him I liked his stethoscope: “I really want one, because I’m planning on becoming a paediatric cardiologist.”

This man assumed I was chatting him up. A few weeks later he asked me to marry him. So, I spent my childhood with my parents moving from hospital to hospital, and then I met my husband in the lifts at St Thomas’!

I did become a paediatric cardiologist, and my husband is now the clinical lead for cancer services at Guy’s Hospital and still also works at St Thomas’ where we met. He bought me the platinum stethoscope for our 20th anniversary!

On the other side of the NHS

My first child Hassan was very ill when he was a baby and toddler. He was diagnosed with bone marrow failure. Infections were very dangerous to him, and he was in hospital about 15 times when he was little.

It was very stressful – and it’s given me an insight into what parents go through which has been very helpful for me as a paediatrician.

I saw the NHS in action from the other side and it was amazing. Hassan was treated at lots of different hospitals – Bolton, Wigan, Guy’s, St Thomas’, Luton, Barnet, and West Middlesex. My daughter Sophia has also had hospital stays at the Royal Free and Chelsea and Westminster. All were fantastic.

I also realised why it’s always the nurses that get the chocolates. The support and care they offered was off the scale.

When you’re in hospital, you get support from so many people – not just the range of healthcare professionals, but the people who clean, the catering staff who bring the food. It’s so important.

I see that here at Royal Brompton at night. I often see patients chatting to the security guards. There are so many great people working in the NHS: the porters, nurses, cleaners, healthcare assistants, the allied healthcare professionals, everyone – they come to work for the NHS, for our patients.

A wonderful moment in my life was on Hassan’s second birthday. He spent it in St Thomas’ hospital. The nurses made him a cake and got the hospital clown to come and see him. They all sang Happy Birthday.

I remember the pure joy on his face.

The thought came into my head: ‘And here we are again – one of the happiest moments of my life is in a hospital.’ It was beautiful.

I’m glad to say my son came through his illness and is now fine – thanks to the NHS!

My NHS family

In 2004 my father received an OBE for services to medicine.

Now, to celebrate NHS 70, they’re having Parliamentary Lifetime Achievement Awards, my father has made it to the final four. On the 4th of July, the day before the official birthday, he will go to Westminster to see if he’s won. We are all so proud.

If you add up all of the years of service my family have given to the NHS, it works out at 140 years!

My son is 17, but I don’t think he’s going to go into medicine … but maybe my daughter! All of my family love the NHS. We’ve worked hard for it, but it’s been so wonderful for us too and we really feel privileged to work in it.

Every hospital I’ve ever worked in, I’ve loved. But now I’m working at Royal Brompton – I know I really have ended up in the best.

Dr Nitha Naqvi is a consultant paediatric cardiologist at Royal Brompton Hospital.