NHS Whistle-Blower - "It all came back to me, the bullying, the horror..."

By an NHS Whistle-blower: This week I was interviewed by the BBC as an NHS whistle-blower in the wake of the report from Sir Robert Francis QC – Freedom to Speak Out. Sir Francis has identified 20 principles for safeguarding those people who raise concerns as it is clear that an unhealthily large proportion of us are bullied and silenced. Many of us are sacked. Many are forced into gagging orders. And for many of us changes never actually take place.

As I waited for the reporter to set up and begin the interview I realised that, although I was not remembering the details of what had happened to me, I had a severe body memory of the feeling of fear and threat that I experienced every single day that I went to work.

This started happening after I allege I was assaulted and myself and another staff member threatened (battery) – there were three witnesses.

The local police refused to interview the witnesses saying “xxx is of high standing in the local community. The policeman asked “Do you want us to march in, put xxx under arrest, put xxx in handcuffs, and march xxx out?” I thought for a couple of seconds.

This was one of those “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” moments. I thought “if I say yes, I’m vindictive, if I say no then it’s not serious enough to be dealt with”.

So I said “if that is what is necessary, then yes”. The police wrote in their report “she insists he is put under arrest” – not quite the same thing. The police “lost” for six months documents they had requested from me. An apology from the police felt more like intimidation, an interview on the telephone was aggressive and treated me like the criminal not the victim (and was heard by witnesses who agreed) and I had phone calls telling me that there was no crime, and that battery is a lessor crime so they would not investigate it and even though the police had failed in basic protocol that I should “put it all behind me and move on”. Convenient.

So, is it possible that the person about whom I had raised concerns had some influence at the police? I couldn’t possibly say. Just as I can’t possibly say what the role of some very powerful business men in the local area was either – and why they were hanging around the surgery the day that my senior partner was locked out of his own practice.

I became a whistle-blower because the PCT asked me to report on a certain individual. They told me they had had numerous complaints. However, I would not answer their questions nor give them any information without first properly investigating it. The PCT asked me to work with my senior partner “as a team”. Later the same PCT said that they could not use our evidence because we had acted together! Bizarre. My mornings began with me driving to work, in tears. And then on arrival, trying to repair my makeup and look normal as I walked into the building and past reception. Sometimes I didn’t say “good morning” as I rushed past to get to my office. The staff didn’t know that this was because I didn’t want them to see my tears, that I was unable to speak without breaking down.

After running the gauntlet of reception and of my Nemesis, I would arrive in my office and close the door while I tried to get myself together. There would frequently be a nasty letter left on my desk. My heart would pound as I opened it, and it would be full of innuendo and lies. Such as suggestions that I desired to have an affair with one of the female doctors – and this was written as though this was part of a genuine business conversation!

The letters were generally based upon something I  had said in a meeting which was then twisted and re-presented to me in order to undermine and unbalance me for the day.

During the day I would be instructed to carry out actions, and the staff would be instructed to complain about the same actions. The senior GP, also a whistle-blower, was equally undermined. If I set up a clinical service for the patients, as agreed in a meeting, “certain people” would refuse to become involved, refuse to attend the clinics and then blame me for the fact that they were not taking place – even complaining that I had claimed money for services that I was not running! Small point that I am not a clinician and therefore can only set up and manage the service, not actually attend and see patients!

My senior GP was happy to run all the clinics, even those that certain colleagues of his were sabotaging. But instead he was attacked for trying to run a service for patients. It was impossible.

As a business manager I could see the problems that this behaviour was causing, the practice was seriously losing money and standard patient services were failing. I begged my bosses to let me and my team of nurses, administrators, receptionists, build the service properly – we had had a meeting and everyone wanted to pitch in – but they said that I was acting as if I was a partner and bullying them! Then came the witch-hunt, when staff members were interviewed in secret to in order to draw out complaints about me. These are typical of those complaints: “She wore a hat and boots to work one day, and claimed she was a pagan and a witch”, “she wrote down what we agreed to do in our meeting and then asked me to sign it, my husband says that this is bullying”, “She’s nice enough but I wouldn’t trust her”, “she shouted at poor xxxx” “she went around slamming doors”. Warped, influenced and shocking lies. One of the partners wrote, under oath, that I had failed to attend my appraisal. He also wrote a letter to me thanking me for attending the same appraisal. How could he lie under oath?

I could not understand how people I had always supported joined in with this mobbing. I was heartbroken.  And the heartbreak was the worst of it.

But the management and administration team at the practice would not play ball in this bullying game. And so they all lost their jobs too. One of whom had worked there for thirty five years and is one of the most professional and competent people with whom I have ever had the good fortune to work.

When she was dismissed she received nothing – no card, no goodbye. Thirty five years – and all for nothing.

Next, dirty poems were written about me and left around the consulting rooms, I received text messages through the evening and all through the night and early the next morning on my day off. I was shouted at in meetings – like a hairdryer blasting you, I was trapped in my room sitting at my desk with a man standing over me and shaking papers in my face and yelling (and I don’t mean an angry voice, I really mean yelling). Rumours were spread about me and I had the indignity of sexual harassment – including exposure and cyber sexual harassment and cyber bullying.

As soon as I was out all the patient complaints were suppressed, evidence was withheld from the PCT. Hospital computer audit records had been tampered with.

Is it any wonder that I felt that cold metallic feeling running through my chest? That pain, it felt as though breathing was sharp, like I was outside on a bitterly cold day. My ribs felt like sandpaper on the inside. My throat was closed. I found it difficult to speak.

It is a wonder I found any words at all.

Thank you to the BBC. At last the truth that Dr Oliver and I were whistle-blowers is out there. We raised concerns because we wanted change. Not because we wanted to upset or harm people. On the contrary, we wanted to safeguard patients. I found it hard to listen to stories patients’ told me without being brought to tears – I acted because patients should be cared for, treated with compassion.

A patient comes to your surgery because they are worried or concerned, because they need help and support. We are there to provide sanctuary and care. That’s all. Patients must come first. Always.

I felt very honoured to be in the privileged position of serving my community. I loved my job, and my results speak for themselves; the practice improved from the bottom quartile to the top quartile in patient service from reception and administration, we had “gold standard” information governance inspection, Quality inspectors asked permission to use my personal development plans, my glossary for identifying, understanding and dealing with negative patient behaviours as models. My policies were called “utterly embedded in practice” ad I was told that we could sell them and my services to underperforming practices, and I gave talks on leadership and management at my practice to other managers. The Mandatory Probity inspection said we were too hard on ourselves! So after a sham disciplinary, and Dr Oliver being locked out of his own surgery – after 17 years – I was forced out and I lost my job. Dr Oliver lost his job, his business, his patients, his life’s work. Since then thousands upon thousands of patients have followed Dr Oliver to his new practice – forcing them into a brand new building in order to accommodate them all. But Dr Oliver has still lost his own business and everything he built up.

We both watched helplessly as his work and my work were systematically torn apart and patients’ were left suffering without a voice.

Yes, I loved my job. But my life was ripped apart because I put my patient’s before myself and before my job – for what? Nothing has changed for the better – things have changed for the worse! Would I do it again? My conscience says yes, my head says no … the jury is still out.

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