Congenital Heart Patient, Maurice Richmond, shares an exclusive interview with our Founder and Patron

My name is Maurice Richmond, I am 30 years old and I was born a Fallot’s baby. I received corrective surgery in 1992 at the Royal Brompton, and have been able to live a happy, full and healthy life since. I’ve been very fortunate to have been under Jane’s care in my early years, and now have my annual consultations at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.

I proudly support The Somerville Foundation* and the wonderful work it does for all ACHD patients.

“Oh, you would have died, probably”.

As a Fallot’s baby, hearing what my prognosis would’ve been at the beginning of Professor Jane Somerville’s career proved startling, and a stark reminder of the strides taken, many of which she has overseen. London’s embattled Guy’s Hospital was a fertile ground for ‘blue patients’, where their chances of survival were very much in the balance.

“It would depend on what surgeon’s hands you got into.  You would not have got a total correction first go, you’d have had a shunt and you might of, in the early 1960s, got a shunt which worked.  After the age of four or five, you would have had a total correction from which you might have died, with about a 25-30% mortality, depends on who did it”.

Jane’s harrowing assessment draws on her six decades of experience, which has ultimately changed the course of the cardiac care we all receive forever.

From fighting for funding, placing cardiac units across the country, and more beyond that, her character, consciousness, and competitive spirit has meant we can survive and thrive in equal measure. The latter is what we all desire today, the thought of achieving the former may have even been but a distant dream in the early 1960s.

Today, a foundation bears her name, she’s an eminent leader of cardiac care and her lectures around the world ensure Jane’s words continue to inspire and challenge the next generation of cardiologists.

However, had Jane entered the family business, she would have been asking the questions, rather than providing the answers. Born to journalist parents in 1933, her foray into cardiology owed to a single-mindedness shown at a very young age, along with a few well-placed books.

“I always ploughed my own furrow, as did the children of that age group, pity they don’t do that now”.  I think reading medical books when I was away on holiday with my aunt in the country, whose husband had been a doctor, inspired me.  There were lots of medical books around and I thought they were very interesting.  So, I thought, I think I’ll do medicine”.

A school certificate later, and Jane was off to medical school. Today’s quest for equal opportunities paints an encouraging picture – more than 60 per cent of students selected for training in UK medical schools have been female.  Sadly, 1950s Britain left a lot to be desired. Jane counted herself among a mere 9 percent of female medical students at Guys Medical Hospital. Their admission was mandated by the government at the time. just two years earlier.

Jane was unperturbed, relishing a challenge many might have feared, and progressed to Guy’s Hospital in London. Her experience of dealing with any difficulties posed by her male counterparts was forged as far back as her preparatory schooldays, once more finding herself in the minority.

Her assessment proved typically forthright, revealing: “It was great fun. I had been to school with boys, and I knew how ghastly they are, and they don’t really change as men.  I was kind of used to it, indeed I was asked that by the Dean. He asked me ‘how are you going to manage with all these boys, when you come from a girls’ school?’. I came from an all-girls school, in fact the first girls’ school to send women to university and produce doctors to train”.

“I said I could manage perfectly well and was used to boys. It’s very busy for a woman to be married and have a career and have aspirations in a male dominated field.  The men are quite naughty and nasty, there are some exceptions, but they are naughty.  Once they realise you are competition they’ll meet in a bar, and you can be destroyed, because you’re not in the bar, and you have to rush home for children or something, that’s how it was then”.

The young medical student had her sights on becoming a surgeon, having been influenced by pioneering American surgeon Alfred Blalock and South African cardio-thoracic surgeon Donald Ross.

“Alfred influenced me the first time I heard him lecture as a medical student, he was the one who made the first shunt for blue babies, actually it was designed by a woman, Helen Taussig, but he was often in Guy’s, so I heard him lecture. That’s what drove me to surgery, I thought that is was fantastic”.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Jane however, and by her own admission, any influence she would ultimately bring would lay away from the theatre.

She says: “Because I was clumsy, I couldn’t see how I could become a cardiac surgeon.  I had the brain, but not the talent. I always had interest in what happened after surgery”.

It was from there that, in Jane’s view, she came into contact with the ‘best clinical cardiologist in the world’ – Paul Wood.

“He was the up-and-coming cardiologist who had come back from the war, we were in the 50s, early 60s then. I went to the heart hospital after I had done my two years, then as a cardiologist, you have to have your membership, you have to understand general medicine.  I don’t think they understand it now”.

“I went in the 1960s to work in the heart hospital with Paul, who was surrounded by people from all nations, and you really had to compete.  There you needed sharp elbows, because they would elbow you out of the way.  Then Donald Ross came on the staff in 1965.  I was deeply involved with the surgeons from the word go, because of my early interest”.

Jane’s fortitude paid off and was to make national news in 1968 as the cardiologist for the first UK heart transplant.

“Gosh that was exciting, never a dull moment, very demanding, fun, fun, fun.  A very courageous chap called Fred West, unfortunate name as it were. Very nice guy with a very bad coronary disease.’

The challenges presented on the medical front were matched by the media. Eager to see history in the making, they were eager to gain access by any means necessary.

‘The press were a pain in the neck and no holds barred, they were even coming down chimney pots practically, stopping us and stopping the poor relatives and the donors relatives.  They were so awful; they did a lot to stop transplantation”.

“We’d been up all night and we had never seen anything like it.  It was full of television cameras, the press, everything.  It was amazing, we had never faced the press before, never. Nothing quite prepared you for it.  Then it had to take a halt for both ethical and other reasons”.

The 45-year-old patient became only the 10th person to undergo the procedure across the world. Despite dying 46 days later, the National Heart Hospital proclaimed it a success, and the experience opened the possibility for transplants.

Using this experience, Jane’s earlier surgical aspirations would also prove a foundation of her career and would set her apart from her peers.

“I was brought up very early with that precision of diagnosis. I think it aided me hugely that I understood anatomy, as well as physiology of the heart, and was interested in it and I could visualise what was going on in the patient, that was a great help.  It made me rather precise about diagnosis because I learnt that from Paul Wood”.

“My surgical training helped me enormously.  It also made me a bit different from the men, because they didn’t know anatomy from a bag of chips.  I stood apart from them, I was being a bit different”.

The support of her late husband and ‘Lord Protector’ Walter, himself a leading cardiologist, proved invaluable when she was ‘running around life like a quad bike’, juggling parenthood and her career.

“I managed because I had a number of things, extraordinary determination, a very good and patient husband who had had signed up to me having a career and who paid for the domestic help required.  I didn’t do domestic things – I’ve never ironed a shirt in my life. I had cleaners, housekeepers and all of that, so I had a good supportive husband, he didn’t actually help me directly, but he supported the background”.

“Also, it gave me emotional stability.  I had a home, I shut the door and I was able to write my MD thesis during various pregnancies”.

It was at this point, I asked how males might have not always been a hinderance, and that help was never too far away.

“I think I had a good protector, I think every woman, if she can get it, needs a lord protector and I realise in retrospect, there was always a male somewhere protecting me for whatever reason.  At Guy’s there was someone, my mature husband, there was always a man around”.

Just as Jane opted not to follow her parents into journalism, it appears a Somerville dynasty in cardiology is not on the cards for now.

“My children are all quite good physicians and if they refer a case, they’ve usually got the diagnosis right.  But they didn’t want to become cardiologists, they thought it was too hard work and too little money.  So, they went into business, one is in the restaurant trade, another is a writer, my daughter, the first born, runs a business. So no, not one of them wanted to. But they’re all quite good and I think the youngest, Crispin, should have done medicine”.

The younger Somerville’s involvement has extended to The Somerville Foundation, where he proudly serves as a trustee for the charity. Its DNA is made up of a mission to support patients and has done so since 1993 – starting life as the Grown Up Congenital Heart Patients Association.

With initial funding obtained from The British Heart Foundation, it was founded by Professor Jane Somerville with the help of Judy Shedden MBE, whose son was under Jane’s care, and was able to register as a charity in 1994.

Jane revealed its roots are steeped in hearts and minds and could count on some vital allies to help get the patient association off the ground.

She said: “This was started as a patient association, I felt if they could talk to each other and find out there were other people like them, they wouldn’t be so lonely and get comfort to talk to someone like themselves and it might get some of their issues solved”.

“So, I thought if we had a patient association, they could start talking to each other and the association could deal with that.  That’s why it was formed for the patients.  Launched from the Brompton, there was a Chief Executive there called Bill Bain, he thought it was rather special and I got help and we did that”.

“We had the most marvellous woman called Belinda, who was a sort of psychotherapist patient helper, not a nurse, and she ran round and dealt with everything and helped the patient association enormously, she was quite marvellous.  Judy Shedden was there, she had a son, lovely boy, she was very soft and comforting, nice and sweet.  So, I asked her if she would come and help and be the sort of liaison, look after the patients and she was excellent”.

The financial support from The British Heart Foundation would also prove a key factor, as Jane recalls.

“The Director of BHF was a friend and subsequently helped us, I think we did a good job.  At that time, BHF did help small heart related charities, they helped them get off the ground and they were very good for a number of years.  Unfortunately, they changed their policy and withdrew the funding.

“That’s why we must raise money”.

Asking Jane to give the foundation its annual check-up, she urged for support from patients, now more than ever.

“I think the charity has got to do a lot more and I think it has helped a lot of patients, I think it could do more now, but it doesn’t have the money”.

“Of course, we have been through such a bad period because of Covid, and everything is a bit peculiar, but the foundation has kept going.  I think the patients themselves have got to love their foundation and do something for it”.

Despite it being renamed The Somerville Foundation, in honour of Professor Jane Somerville in 2012, I’ll leave the last word to the lady herself.

“It was a patient association and that’s what it is still, and the patients need it.  Call it what you like, it is for the patients.  Be your own doctor – know where your results are, know where all your things are and know what is the matter with you, carry a passport of sorts, to know all those things”.

*All details correct as time of print. Ref: Guch News Issue 100 – Autumn 21.