What have the outgoing chair of the Western Trust and the current president of the United States got in common?
They’re both lawyers, they’re both only allowed to serve two terms in their current roles and they’ve both met the queen.
But that, says Gerry Guckian is where his similarities with Barack Obama end.
The well known solicitor will step down as chairman of the Western Trust at the end of the month.
It’s not the first time Gerry has attempted to retire, he did so last year but was asked to stay on.
The announcement about who will take over from him in August has yet to be made, but interviews have already been held for the post and for seven new non executive members of the Western Trust Board.
Gerry has been with the Western Trust and Board for the past 14 years - but his involvement goes way back to his father Frank who also served as chair.
“Some of my earliest memories are sitting with my younger brother outside the old Western Board offices at Gransha where we would be left in the car for hours on end as parents may have done in those days,” he said. “It is peculiar that so many years later here I am in the same shoes.”
The Derry man works full time as a lawyer and part time chair of the Western Trust.
“People have often asked how much time goes into each job and which is the main job,” he said. “But I often reflect that people say that the last job you think about before you go to sleep and the first one you think about in the morning may just be your main job. And I have to say over the last while it has been the Western Trust.
“I think it’s because we are dealing with such important issues, health and social care are so important to everyone. It is literally life and death at times and it’s bound to be at the forefront of your mind.”
But he’s mindful that his role is to be a representative of the community.
“The role of chair is someone outside of the healthcare system,” he said. “Along with non executive directors we ensure all checks and balances are in place, that people are held to account and also set the strategic direction of the organisation.”
The past 14 years have seen Gerry work with some exceptional people but he says the solid working relationship he built with chief executive Elaine Way has allowed the Trust to grow.
“For any organisation that is successful the relationship between the chair and chief executive is quite important,” he said. “If you look at failing organisations or organisations which have major problems, quite often the relationship between the chair and chief executive has been fractured. But a positive relationship means we can move forward together.
“I see something in Elaine’s values and way of working that is consistent with my own values and also in keeping with public service values. Certainly in the Western Trust area, we are very lucky to have her here in the west.”
But he’s clear about why he took on the role in the first place.
“I suppose everybody who becomes involved in public service does so because they want to make a difference, to somehow help to improve things in our community and for the people who live here. So if I reflect on my time as chair of the Western Trust the things I will look back on with most pride are the improvements made to services right across the Trust’s programmes of care.
“And actually some of the improvements I am most proud of are those that don’t tend to get much attention in the media – small things that quietly are changing people’s lives like our neighbourhood renewal schemes through the Neighbourhood Health Improvement Partnerships, where the Trust is working with DSD and community and voluntary organisations to help ordinary people make positive changes in their own lives.”
And paving the way for a smoke free environment is another milestone Mr Guckian says the Trust is most proud of.
“People said it couldn’t be done,” he said, “but it’s working and the public are right behind it.”
There have been some major events at the hospital as well.
“I have been privileged to meet with President Mary McAleese and Her Majesty the Queen, on two separate occasions,” he said. “I will never forget introducing her Majesty to Roberta Temple the Trust’s longest serving employee who retired this year after 50 years in the laundry at Altnagelvin, With President McAleese it’s the tremendous rapport she had with our patients. I recall being asked to dance by a patient in Altnagelvin and being overwhelmed by the radiance of a patient’s smile when meeting her in Spruce House.”
But it’s the 12,500 staff in the Trust which make it the region’s largest employer that makes Gerry Guckian most proud.
“I could tell 12,500 stories about just how fantastic they have been. Nobody truly understands the amount of effort, of determination and indeed of stress that our staff live through day by day and year by year. My job has been to try to make their tasks a little bit easier by attracting appropriate investment in our services and also helping to create an environment to work in, where everyone is valued equally no matter what level they are at in the organisation; everyone is a key member of the Western Trust team.”
“In mental health we have come so far in a short space of time from having hundreds if not thousands of people living in institutions to virtually none. Mental health and learning disability services are simply unrecognizable from those only a decade ago.
“For older people we have been really challenged by the huge demand for services both at home and in hospital. We have had to address both areas and these challenges will remain and only increase as we go forward. It is great news that people live longer but it is important that plans are made to sustainably care for those people who are also living with more serious and multiple conditions. Dementia care has greatly improved through leaders like Majella Magee in the Waterside Hospital.
“In children’s services we have been challenged by over 120 extra children in care over the past 3-4 years, rising to 527 when we are funded for 400. This rise has coincided with both the recession and the aftermath of the Baby P case in England. Overall we have tried to go upstream with early intervention through initiatives like our Family Nurse Partnership pilot for teenage mums-to-be and also our infant mental health and children’s emotional health and wellbeing strategy.
“In acute services our hospital services have been completely transformed with the redevelopment of Altnagelvin. But I’m a great believer that it’s not the new facilities that truly make the difference, it’s the people who work in them.
“As such we have seen the Western Trust having the best performance in cancer care with, for example in breast cancer 100% of women consistently being seen within 14 days over the last number of years, despite our service often being down to only one surgeon, Ron Thompson.
“Likewise we have had the best A & E performance despite, up to recently only having 2.4 WTE (whole time equivalent) consultants. These are teams putting in the extra effort day after day, week after week to make sure our patients get the best care possible. In Cardiology under Dr Albert McNeill the entire care pathway has changed from extensive waits for appointments in Belfast to almost instantaneous stenting here in Altnagelvin.
“Real highlights have been the recognition of some of our staff regionally and nationally. Just last year Bernie Michaelides won Nurse of the Year for her work on the innovative intermediate care and rapid response nursing service and Joanne Breslin, Staff Nurse in the ICU at Altnagelvin Hospital was awarded the Patients’ Choice Award.
“In terms of medical education we have made great strides, with a new medical education centre opened last year and really importantly the development of the CTRIC research facility on our Altnagelvin site in partnership with Derry City Council and Ulster University evenings and AHPs – hopefully inspiring our workforce of the future.”
But he admits that not everything can be perfect.
“Mistakes are made and in health care they often have life or death consequences,” he said. “Human beings will always make mistakes but we need to continue to put in place systems that make human error less likely and we need to get better at accepting when things go wrong and saying sorry to those affected.
“There will always be negative stories around individual mistakes and for every thousand people cared for there will be a small number who have negative experiences. I encourage people to tell me, tell the Trust, send it in in writing, so lessons can be learned from it.
“The public would be surprised just how much work goes into making sure our services are safe and of a high quality, it really would astound people how many checks and balances are in place.
“Finances have been tough and are likely to get tougher still, but I want to be clear, millions of pounds have been removed from administration costs – all reinvested in the front line. There are exceptional circumstances that we face in the West that are unique to our area and we must continue to make the case for further investment to meet these challenges.”
The opening of the radiotherapy centre next year will be a major milestone, he said.
“If anything is to be viewed as a legacy it would have to be the radiotherapy centre – a £50m hospital within a hospital which along with the recently announced MacMillan Health and Wellbeing Centre will be a real game changer for cancer patients and their families right across the North West of Ireland.
“I am proud of the many improvements made over the past 9 years in the Western Trust and 5 years in Altnagelvin before that – all achieved by people living and working here in our local community. This is our Trust – owned by and run by our own people for our own people. We need to cherish it. Nothing is more important for people than their health and their families – and when either break down it is the Western Trust that will be there to pick up the pieces.
“Let’s work together to make sure it continues on its upward path of improvement – value it for the success it has been and for the greater success it can be in the future – you never know when you may need it!
“I would like to thank each and every member of staff of the Trust, along with our volunteers, our informal carers and foster parents, all of whom are absolutely devoted to the high quality care for our patients and clients. With dedication and resilience under what can be extreme pressures at times they have continuously astounded me with their inspirational actions.
“We have heroes working and living quietly amongst us. I have been proud to have been associated with them as their chair.”
Leaving will be a wrench, says Gerry.
“Who knows what the future might hold? But I still will be working full time as a solcitor. 52 is a little too young to retire.”
You can watch a video on the progress of Altnagelvin’s Radiotherapy Centre, click on play.