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Interview: Gareth Tuckwell, Chief executive, Burrswood Christian Hospital

19 January 2011

I developed an interested in both ends of life — obstetrics and end-of-life care — when I trained as a doctor, and started on the edge of London as a GP in Epsom. The end-of-life care probably was because my mother died when I was a medical student. She’d been ill, on and off, throughout my life.

I came to Burrswood as medical director in 1986, and stayed till 1999, when I did exciting things like work as a regional director for Macmillan Cancer Support in London for four years, and then became clinical director of a hospice in Tunbridge Wells. It was time to think about retiring perhaps. . .

But I’ve put the stethoscope down and come back (or rather, forward) to Burrswood as chief executive. There are two resident doctors here, and for a while I was the one who filled in the gaps. This help is no longer needed, and that allows me to focus on the day job.

Macmillan invested in me, and gave me media training, experience of managing a big team and a big budget, and also in understanding the NHS’s needs better and relating more closely to it. It’s very refreshing to go out into the world after so long in a Christian organisation, and to find staff who are just as focused and committed to their work.

To heal the sick, comfort the sorrowing, give faith to the faithless. . . Burrswood is run by a charity formed when Dorothy Kerin died, and it still carries out the commission she was given by God. She opened Burrswood 62 years ago, and, until 1998, it was a nursing home and place of healing. Since 1998, we have been registered as a hospital.

Over half the staff have a significant Christian faith, and all at the sharp end are amazing at being beside hurting and vulnerable people. We have 332 staff and volunteers — and they really love working in a place where they are free to live out their faith.

I think it was Canon John Gunstone who talked about “a being-healed community” — and like any com­munity, we are all on a journey. Many of the staff are drawn to work with people going through tough times by their own faith and life experiences.

Many of our patients self-fund, and a number are referred by their GPs. We’ve helped with the cost of care for 37 per cent of our patients this year. On average, three beds (that means the patients who are in the beds, not the places themselves) were funded by the NHS this year — for patients with CFS/ME, or, for example, having long-term intravenous treatment, or major rehab following surgery.

My passion is to see the person in the patient. That involves the body, mind, spirit, emotions, and relationships. It takes time — though not necessarily specialists’ time. It can sometimes be the cleaner who really connects with the patient and offers them the care they need to heal. The NHS offers highly specialised care, whereas we offer care for the whole person.

I’m not too optimistic about how much the voluntary sector and the NHS will be able to work more closely together. In the NHS, the bottom line is going to be value for money. But then, with the “Big Society”, it will be interesting to see if there will be new opportunities to include voluntary-sector provision.

We haven’t educated people properly about the cost of health care. When I see the cost of every new break­through, every new treatment, every new investigation. . . I was a GP in Christchurch, New Zealand, for a year in 1980, and saw how every test result would come back to the GP with the cost shown. The state paid the cost of generic drugs, but if a patient wanted a branded drug, the patient would pay the difference.

Chaplaincy here at Burrswood is 100-per-cent integrated into patient care. The chaplain writes in the notes, takes part in hand-over, may suggest a diagnosis — and may be right. They have an absolutely key input into patient care.

Moltmann defines true health as “having the strength to live, the strength to suffer, and the strength to die”.

Patients stay with us for an average of nine days; so there is time to connect with them. The staff are pretty amazing about showing love for them and being alongside. In the NHS, you’re in a hospital bed for the shortest possible time, and the focus is primarily on what’s wrong physically.

A lot of people find it easier to open up here, because we’re not their GP or their vicar, people they have to live their daily lives with.

I’d love to think that Burrswood will no longer be the best-kept secret, and that every Christian will know what we offer. I have a long-term dream to be able to offer care to whoever needs it: to open the doors wider and wider to people in need. That will take funding. Like so many Christian organisations, it’s really important to work closely with other like-minded organisations and secure our financial future. At the moment, like most charitable organisations, we work month by month, not really being sure of our income level. It takes a lot of financial resources to get a place like this going today.

I’d like to reach out to more people who are not Christians. People should be queuing at the door to come.

I came from generations of doctors, and knew from the age of 12 that I wanted to do medicine. I suppose it must have been paternal influence. As I look back, I think of Bishop Morris Maddocks, who came here in 1987, just after I had arrived. He was very influential — very formative. And Bishop John Perry, who continues to be an amazing role-model. Both have been wonderful friends: able to say hard things to me at times.

Not a lot makes me angry — but probably because I have a passion for Burrswood, I do get angry on the rare occasion when staff take their eyes off the ball, or miss a trick, when dealing with a patient. I love things to be right.

Mary and I have three children from birth, and one “chosen” daughter, who came to us from four years old. And we have fostered 11 children in all. We have five grandchildren from our birth-children, and another six from two of our foster-children.

My biggest regret — like so many of the patients whose “if onlys” I listen to — that I didn’t spend more time at home with them all. Burrswood’s more of a life than a job, and boundaries are something I really have to work hard at all the time.

People walk on to the stage of life and make a huge difference, and we think, how will we ever do without them? But then we do, and often a lot better. I hope I have been a good father, husband, and doctor. I hope I’ve brought the love of Christ to sick and vulnerable patients, in my fallible way.

I turn to different parts of the Bible at different times. I love Paul’s letters to the churches because they often seem so relevant to life today. And even the genealogies can be inter­esting.

I like to dip into books, and I keep up with the journals — and even the BMJ in part. Two writers have influenced me enormously: Jean Vanier and the late Henri Nouwen.

The whole family would tell you that my favourite place is a little village called Cwmystwyth, in Wales. When my mother was dying, in 1969, she had £2000 to give her two sons, and I went to Wales with her and chose a cottage in this little village which has now been enjoyed by four gen­erations. I love walking — I could walk all day and all night (if I could see) in the mountains. And I love the sound of the river rushing past my bedroom window at night there.

When I feel the weight of need upon me, I lift that to God. It can be my family’s needs, those who don’t have a living faith, my children’s areas of work, or my church.

I’m an Elder in a Pentecostal church, although Burrswood’s an Anglican foundation. It was just that when we came here, our eldest child was ten. The teenage years are tough; so we wanted a church which had a strong ministry to youngsters. This one had a monthly meeting for young people to which hundreds might come; my own children were happy to bring their schoolfriends there, and we haven’t regretted it, ever.

I’d much rather be alone if I was locked in a church. But if I have to have someone, I’d choose Archbishop John Sentamu, because he would keep me calm and entertained, and there would be plenty of people looking for him; so they’d find me as well.

Dr Gareth Tuckwell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.





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