News posted 5 April, 2023

From student nurse to Acting Group Chief Executive – Gill Heaton looks back on nearly 50-year career at the NHS

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  • From student nurse to Acting Group Chief Executive – Gill Heaton looks back on nearly 50-year career at the NHS

In 1976, Gill Heaton started her NHS journey as a student nurse at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. The building that served as the Nurses Home then, Cobbett House, is now the HQ of the Manchester University NHS Trust and holds Gill’s office, where she retired after a long and successful career including being awarded an OBE for services to Nursing and Healthcare in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2010.

Gill said: “I’ve done the full scale in the same hospital, from student nurse to Chief Nurse, while also going from being a management trainee to the Acting Chief Executive. That’s been my absolute privilege, and I’ve worked with many amazing people along the way.

“I always wanted to be a nurse. I like working with people and caring for them. Nursing isn’t in the family though, and Mum always said that I would need a back-up plan in case I didn’t make it as a nurse – but I never did have one!”

After qualifying as a staff nurse in 1979, Gill started work on the Cardiac Surgery Unit at MRI where she arrived for her shifts on her scooter, a little Honda C70.

“If my career has taught me one thing it is that it really doesn’t matter what role you have in the NHS. Whatever you do, you have your part to play and you are in one big team with a single aim – to help people.”

Despite thriving as a staff nurse, Gill always had an interest in trying different roles. In the 1990s, after successful stints as a Health Visitor and lecturing in health studies, she saw an advert for the NHS General Management Training Scheme while taking some students to a careers fair.

“I thought – that sounds quite interesting, I’ll give it a shot! It was extremely competitive to get on – there were 60 places for 3,000 applicants nationally, and just six of us trainees in the whole of the North West.”

“I had never planned to go into management. But I did think that that all my frontline knowledge could be helpful in developing services for patients, so I thought why not try it?”

Having enjoyed her time as a nurse at MRI, Gill was keen to return when on the management programme, and her first job was a business manager for general surgery and renal transplant. She followed this by becoming the Divisional Director of Surgery and then, in 1994, Director of Operations for Central Manchester Hospitals Trust.

Joining the regional NHS regional office as a project lead, Gill led improvement work at Ashworth Mental Hospital in Merseyside before a move back to acute trusts, as Director of Nursing and Operations at Warrington Hospital.

“In 2001 I came back to CMFT, this time as Chief Nurse and Chief Operating Office, roles which I would hold for 13 years. I became the Deputy CEO in 2006, and as that became more of my focus I dropped my COO role in 2013 and then my Chief Nurse role in 2015.

“It’s really nice to go full circle, and to finish my time as Acting Group CEO in the same building where I used to stay as a student nurse. I genuinely feel that it has been a privilege to work in the NHS, and particularly in the places where I have worked.

“When I look back, my main legacy will be the work I did on the new hospitals development at Oxford Road Campus, which I oversaw from its beginning to the move in 2009. I’m so proud of what everyone achieved by working together – you walk out of Cobbett House, the old Victorian MRI, with all its proud history, and you look across at linked hospitals set up to provide 21st Century care.

“So much has changed since I became a nurse, and the strides we have made in clinical innovation are stunning. When I started, a gallbladder operation would see you in hospital for two weeks. Now it’s a day case. A cardiac procedure which would require a six week stay in hospital is now four days.”

Alongside colleagues over the years, Gill is quick to pay tribute to the support of her family, particularly her mum when she was able to help look after her children, picking them up and dropping them off around nursing shifts. Her husband Denis, a teacher, has been “incredible”, Gill says, learning to live with the disruption of Executive On-Call phone calls which she has had to take at all hours of the night!

“Everything we have in the NHS today has been built on the work of those who came before us, and those coming after us will take healthcare even further.

“People walk past hospitals, and they have no idea of just what amazing work is going on inside them. All our staff should be immensely proud. It’s such an honour to have played a small part in that.

“My advice to anyone starting out in the NHS now is simple: make the most of opportunities and be brave – the rest will follow. And always keep your sense of humour!”