What my heart attack taught me about NHS teamwork

The following blog reflects on my recent experience of having a heart attack.  As a business psychologist it was great to have the opportunity to just watch what was happening in a serious medical emergency and the follow-up care I received.  This article considers a very personal reflection of teamwork in action.

On the 21st March (my birthday) I awoke at 6:10am with extreme pain in my chest.  I didn’t at this stage even think I was having a heart attack.  Thankfully I was able to ‘phone for an ambulance at 6:20am with the ambulance arriving 15 minutes later.

Image of an Ambulance

The ambulance personnel quickly stabilised me with appropriate medical interventions and then used the diagnostic equipment to identify the issues that were impacting on me.  I was rushed to the nearest specialist hospital 38 miles away with the medical assessment being forwarded to the consultant cardiologist on route.  The paramedics explained what was likely to happen when I got to hospital and when 5 miles away from the hospital ‘phoned ahead that they would arrive shortly.

After arriving, I was transferred into an operating theatre with approximately 8 staff in attendance.  Immediately, the staff started to explain what was going to happen, with even an impromptu ‘Happy Birthday’ rendition.  An imaging machine scanned the upper chest area and after approximately 10 minutes the decision was communicated to me that they would need to insert 3 stents.  When this procedure commenced I experienced some pain but quickly medication was administered easing it immediately.  After 50 minutes the operation was completed with again some light-hearted comments about it being my birthday.  A consultant cardiologist who I know also arrived into the operating theatre enquiring how I was and that the operating team had done “A brilliant job’.  Very reassuring and caring that he took time to see me when he saw my name on the operating room.

At 9:00am I was having breakfast with no pain at all.  Shortly afterwards an alarm went off in the room and within 10 seconds two staff were at my bedside to ascertain what the issue was.  Immediate reassurance was given to me that it was only a slight flutter of the heart.  Lunch and tea was also great.  Who said hospital food was poor?  So, was the number of senior medical staff who called to see me and to provide ongoing reassurance to me.

At 3:30pm I was transferred to another hospital 70 miles away.  Again, the medical attention was excellent, with the nurse in charge completing all the necessary information on me.  What is very noticeable, is that this was the only time I had to do that.  Clearly the information is on a central system with staff being able to access it.  So, there was no need to repeat the information.

The next day the Consultant discussed all the issues I had as well as clearly setting the highest of professional standards for staff to follow.  A trainee doctor also called with me just to simply ask what it was like to have had a heart attack.  Personal ongoing training in action.  Pharmacist staff also explained what impact the medicines might have on me.  After two days I was discharged.

The following week, I was contacted by the Cardiac Rehab Nurse to enquire how I was and that an appointment was made two weeks later for a more in-depth discussion.  At this meeting the nurse knew all the personal information about me.  She also explained in some detail how the stents were inserted and how over time they will embed into my artery in the heart.  If of course I had any concerns I could contact her or my GP.  This I had to do recently as I was experiencing some pain in my chest.  My GP phoned me back in an hour and an appointment was made for that afternoon.  A chest infection was diagnosed, and an X-Ray arranged immediately.

So, what have I learnt about teamwork?


Nearly always an issue in any organisation.  However, in the Western Trust NHS this certainly isn’t the case with a seamless integration of the information flows both within and between the hospitals and GP service.  Certainly, when dealing with medical emergencies it is essential that there are no communication gaps.  One person took time to take all the information details with the medical staff also registering the medical procedures undertaken in my case file.

In a business context one lesson that can be learnt from this is, make sure in any team one individual is designated to collate and ensure the accuracy of the information, no matter what the project is.


In this context, the processes again worked seamlessly.  From information from the ambulance being sent to the cardiologists assisting them diagnose my problems initially, to state of the art imaging equipment in the operating theatre and with the best of equipment available to perform the surgery.  A centralised system efficiently used to record all my medical notes and personal information; with individuals in each area contributing to the record.  (By personal information I mean, staff knew that I was a non-smoker | non-drinker | ran half-marathons | and had a healthy life-style.  I was not a typical candidate to have a heart attack).

In a business context does your organisation have the processes and equipment to support team work?  If not, you are likely to ‘short-change’ all your stakeholders.

Care, Courtesy, Compassion

In the health care sector it might seem obvious that this is essential.  In my instance, the three ‘C’s were evident from everyone I have met.  From, the ambulance paramedics, operating consultants and staff, senior doctors, trainee doctors, nurses, ancillary staff including porters, kitchen staff and cleaning staff, Cardiac Consultant, Rehab Cardiac Nurse, GP Staff, my GP and Radiographers.  All have provided me care, courtesy and compassion.

In your business is this something your teams think about or is this just another team project with disinterested staff, just going through the motions.

Work is Fun

I was once told that “Work should be the best fun you should have, but with your clothes on!”  Well it was evident that the staff in the NHS that I encountered certainly did seem to be enjoying their jobs.  Perhaps this is closely linked to the 3 ‘C’s’ but unless your team can enjoy their work the outcome for the stakeholders is very likely to be less than would be expected.

In your business are your teams having some fun and enjoying their work?


Having the right people in the right job role is essential in the primary health care sector.  Certainly, everybody I have encountered were particularly knowledgeable.  Not only that but it was evident that learning and development is an ongoing process for staff.  From the Cardiac Consultant setting the highest of professional standards; to senior nurses encouraging and discussing patient care with trainee nurses; and for the trainee doctor spending 20 minutes of her time just in trying to understand what had happened to me.

In your business do your experienced staff act as mentors for trainees; do you encourage a learning environment; and do you personally take responsibility for your ongoing work development?

What has been the outcome for me?

Ironically, I am now in a much healthier position than I was 5 weeks ago, so I will be able to resume full work quickly.  However, I would describe my heart attack as a ‘Stealth Bomber’.  The constant 50-hour weeks, with little holidays, over the past 20 years caught up on me.  Only that I was healthy in the first instance the outcome and the recovery period may not have been just as good, as I now expect it to be.

Therefore, I owe a great debt of gratitude to all the medical staff, for their commitment, dedication and most importantly focusing on only one goal – getting me fit and well again.  Certainly, the NHS is not broken; perhaps it is time we celebrate all its achievements and avoid the rhetoric of doom and gloom.  To all in the Western Trust NHS (Northern Ireland) thanks for a wonderful team effort.  Just one wee point – the operating staff could improve their rendition of Happy Birthday!!!

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