1. ITV Report

NHS 70: 'Behind the mask' - a day in the life of an operating theatre

Nestled on the edge of the Yorkshire dales - Airedale's setting is perhaps a long way from the image conjured up of an under-pressure NHS. But when a member of the theatres team says "from the inside out, we do the best we can with what we've got" you know the stresses and strains could be similar to those in any major inner city hospital.

Airdale hospital Credit: Airedale Hospital Trust

Yes, they may be different in nature, but according to one trainee anaesthetist working on this particular front line of rural healthcare, the demands here still outstrip supply.

70 years since the health service began, he tells me if things continue the way they are, it could be heading towards "a sort of critical point...and everything could collapse."

And yet this healthcare family still welcomes us into the fold; a place they consider a second home.

Our cameras captured a 'normal' day in the operating theatres, if there ever is such a thing, to find out who the people really are behind the masks.

An operating theatre at Airedale Hospital Credit: Editorial

The NHS will last as long as there are people willing to fight for it

– Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan (1948)

Perhaps this statement from the man responsible for the birth of the NHS has never been more apt. It feels like a mantra the staff here still live by to this day.

It's a rather large dysfunctional family but I think you have to have a certain personality type to work in the operating theatre

– Joanne Boyle, Clinical Governance Lead for theatres

Joanne Boyle's been working in the NHS for 35 years. "I've seen lots of changes over that time and things come round again and they didn't work the first time and you're not sure they're going to work the second time but it's your job to make sure that you do your best for patients."

We're proud of what we do, we're passionate about what we do. I might be far away from clinical now, but I'm still a nurse at heart, I'm passionate about being a nurse

– Joanne Boyle, Clinical Governance Lead for theatres
Our cameras filmed two procedures in the operating theatre at Airedale Hospital Credit: Editorial

Perhaps that passion and fight to give patients the best possible care, in spite of stretched resources and high demand, comes from the fact that so many staff here are looking out for the health of their own community.

Dean Harness, an Operating Department Practitioner has been here for almost a lifetime: "I've grown up at this hospital. I was even born at this hospital, so it's in my blood and my family's blood."

"When you've managed to get 27 years under your belt at the same hospital, I don't know if the grass is greener, I've never been brave enough to go find out but also, I've not really needed to."

The surgical team deal with 12,000 operations every year Credit: Editorial

Consultant Surgeon Laura Whittaker's got a long standing connection to this hospital too. She was here as a trainee and a junior doctor, before returning years later as a Consultant.

"A lot of people that were here ten years ago when I was a junior doctor have come up through the ranks themselves within the theatre team and it's really nice to work with them again, and feel part of a team.''

It's very much a team rather than a hierarchy

– Laura Whittaker, Consultant Surgeon
Airedale's theatres team carry out more than 2,000 emergency operations a year Credit: Editorial

We're invited to watch two procedures in Laura's operating theatre. They're both on her 'elective list' of patients who've chosen to have operations rather than needing to undergo emergency surgery.

They do handle emergencies here, about 2,000 out of their 12,000 procedures a year, but today Laura's schedule includes an endoscopy - an investigation using a flexible camera - under general anaesthetic, and a gallbladder removal using laparoscopy, or 'keyhole surgery' in layman's terms.

Surgery is a good speciality to see almost instant rewards. You see patients that need an operation, you do an operation and then they get better very quickly on the whole.

Just feeling like you make a difference and seeing those patients come back to clinic and have their lives back.

– Laura Whittaker, Consultant Surgeon
There are around 130 staff working in Airedale's theatres department Credit: Editorial

With 'team work makes the dream work' scrawled on the whiteboard just behind the anaesthetist's array of monitors, ventilators and drips, you soon realise that like any office or factory floor, this is a place for 'workplace banter' too. A place for humour and heartbreak, and everything in between.

"Gosh, I started working in the NHS in 1980. Too many years ago" jokes Clinical Governance Manager Karen Taylor.

"We've had divorces, marriages, children, deaths, the whole remit and you're a massive part of that. The team will bring that personal side into the room before the patient arrives and then when the patient's here, that's left behind and you see the professional side of the person."

There's still place for 'workplace banter' Credit: Editorial

Back in recovery, there's one patient grabbing most people's attention. Her bedside manner, just as good as that of any of the nursing staff here. No wonder, given that Denise Gardner is a former nurse herself. Born, in fact, just three months after the NHS began in 1948.

"I've had a left hip replacement. I've already had the right one done a few years ago, so I'm hoping that now I've had the left one done, I'll be able to walk a lot better."

As a nurse, she witnessed some of the UK's first hip operations.

Compared to what the hip replacements were like 50 years ago, the ones now are absolutely amazing. I've done quite well really out of the NHS, it's a marvellous thing, and I'd hate to think they'd go like they do in America.

I mean when you think about what everything costs, the NHS is the best thing that ever happened isn't it?"

– Denise Gardner, Patient
Patients are kept in the recovery ward for at least 20 minutes after their procedure Credit: Editorial

There are plenty who've sat in hospital corridors for hours waiting for treatment who might think that is debatable.

The team here know that. They're not immune to criticism themselves. They know they're constantly under scrutiny.

Karen says: "You're constantly being watched by patients and you don't always notice they're watching you. I totally understand that we need to do better and that's what the NHS needs to always strive to do, we must always do better for our patients."

Don't get us wrong, you don't see us cry. We do look hard faced, but once you're not there, the amount of times I've been in tears behind the back of theatres and you shake it off and get on with it, but that's normal, that's human life, nature.

– Nichola McGhee, Senior Healthcare Assistant
The surgical staff deliver 2 or 3 babies by Caesarean section every day Credit: Editorial

"It's not the NHS that I think was originally envisaged or planned to be free at point of contact, comprehensive, universal treatment" adds anaesthetist Dr Premraj Prabhakaram.

Now it's more like a business, so things have changed.

– Dr Premraj Prabhakaram, Anaesthetist

Dean Harness says he hopes the health service survives another 70 years for when he needs it.

"How it's going to manage, I don't know. It's a frightening grey area at the moment." But he says any failure in keeping the health service afloat won't be for the want of trying by the people behind the masks:

It does need help, it's on its knees which is sad to see but I know the staff at Airedale would give everything until they're on their knees and will try our best to keep it going.

– Dean Harness, Operating Department Practioner
  • Watch the full report from Michael Billington:

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