Liz Walke is an unlikely trail blazer. Delicate, ash-blond, softly spoken and slightly bird-like in appearance, when we meet properly for the first time I am a little surprised to find that her private demeanour offers no clue of the ferocity of which I know she is capable. I expect to come face to face with someone very confident, bombastic, perhaps even a little ‘shouty’, but the woman I’m confronted with is not the same one I have watched rallying crowds of thousands with rhetoric worthy of any accomplished MP, and administering blistering sound bites to local TV and radio. Liz is a truly inspirational lady, but when she walks in to the room, you wouldn’t know it – not immediately. ‘You’d be surprised what you can achieve when you feel passionate about something’ she says, matter-of-factly ‘I am actually very shy, and public-speaking used to be my worst nightmare, but when I talk about the campaign something else takes over.’
Liz is referring to the campaign to save core services at Eastbourne’s District General Hospital (DGH), of which she is chair. Liz and her allies have just won a major victory for the town in saving consultant-led maternity services at the hospital; a battle that took two years of seemingly-endless hard work.
I have never had a baby, and I’m not sure if I ever will – that’s an issue for another day- but if I were about to give birth I’d naturally assume that I could pitch-up at any maternity ward in the country, where my needs would be properly taken care of, whatever they were. That is because I live in England, and England’s National Health Service guarantees its citizens free and adequate health care from the cradle to the grave, does it not? Apparently the answer is no, not always.
In 2006, the East Sussex Primary Care Trust, the body that controls healthcare spending across the county, began to publicly discuss the possibility of removing consultant-led maternity services from either Eastbourne DGH, or Hastings Conquest hospital. This despite the fact that Eastbourne and Hastings (two, rapidly-expanding towns) are over 20 miles apart. The journey between them can only be made via the A259, (public transport is not a realistic option), along one of the most congested and dangerous roads in the south east. Under this plan, expectant mothers in need of specialist obstetric treatment including emergency caesarean sections, which are required by one in four women in labour, would have had to make a treacherous, potentially life-threatening journey to hospital in order to be seen by a practising specialist. The plan would inevitably have cost the lives of women and their babies, but the incredible efforts of Liz, her ‘right hand man’ Monica, as well as the rest of the committee has meant that ultimately the downgrading of these services will remain nothing more than a dangerously negligent idea, rather than the tragic reality it could haven been.
On the day I interview Liz, our local newspaper, the Eastbourne Herald, is emblazoned with the news that she has just been awarded the freedom of Eastbourne borough, a rare accolade she now shares with such influential VIPs as Martina Navratilova, Henry Allingham and Winston Churchill.
FP: Firstly could you tell me a little bit about yourself, who were you before you became involved in the campaign to save Eastbourne’s core services?
LW: I’m in my (late) forties (queue comedy cough splutter), I just had a birthday and notched up 48 years! I’ve been married to Dave nearly 23 years and we have four boys – Jason (nearly 21), Gary (19), Matthew (17) and Allan (15). I run my own accountancy and book-keeping service, and am also a parent-governor at a local Church of England school.
Are you a serial activist, or is this the first time you’ve dipped your toe into the murky waters of local politics?
I had fought against the closure of a local rehab hospital – All Saints, where an aunt was taken after having a stroke. She had excellent care there. It became clear that the decision to close this establishment had been made earlier and there was little that could be done. It was after this closure that I went to a public meeting to find out what provision was being made for ‘in-patient slow-stream rehabilitation’. It was here that I found out that ‘core services’ (ie. A&E, paediatrics and maternity) were under threat and I spoke to our local MP (Nigel Waterson, Cons.) at that meeting. He subsequently arranged to meet me plus four others the following Friday. It was at that meeting, in February 2006, that we set up the Save the DGH Campaign.
What motivated you to fight the PCT’s decision in the first place?
It’s simple. We felt that lives of women and their babies were being needlessly put at risk.
How do you begin to fight a powerful body like a PCT?
Start by getting board papers and information and try to find out who actually made the decision, raising public awareness is also tremendously important.
Who came on board to help, and at what stage?
All local political parties were invited to be represented in a Campaign Group, as well as the local Bishop and the Chamber of Commerce. The Mayor was at the first meeting in Nigel Waterson’s Office (the local MP) and the Leader of Eastbourne Borough Council became very active. This was all fairly early on. It was obvious that the political parties needed to be united and this is what we endeavoured to happen. All the separate petitions which had been started were combined into the one campaign and we contacted the local media regularly. We also had PR, legal and financial advice – all freely given from local businesses!! As a campaign group we decided to fight with Hastings ‘Hands Off the Conquest’ Campaign, as we believed what we were fighting for in Eastbourne was also needed in Hastings.
What were the high points during the struggle?
The high point came in March in September 2006, when over 5000 local people marched in protest against proposals to downgrade our local ‘core services’. This gave the Campaign a mandate from the people which could not be ignored.
And the Low point?
20th December 2007, when despite huge public support for our Campaign and overwhelming evidence saying that downgrading either Eastbourne or Hastings DGH would be unsafe, the Joint Primary Care Trust decided that Eastbourne DGH’s maternity unit would be downgraded.
Did you ever feel like just giving up?
No – I never wanted to give up – not until every angle of challenge had been pursued. Then when the first woman or baby died or was damaged, we would be able to sleep at night knowing we had done everything possible.
Liz, I heard that you offered up your own home in order to help secure the necessary funding for a legal review, is that correct?
How did you come to make a decision like that, how did your family feel about it?
It was necessary to challenge not just politically but through the courts legally. Someone had to do that and in the absence of Judicial Review being underwritten by the local Council, I said I would do it. My family have supported me all the way and when I asked them, they said go for it!
Would you say that your involvement in the campaign has changed your life, or your view of things?
A lot of my time has been swallowed up with campaign work but it has been truly enriched by working with people (very well qualified and able people) who haven’t asked for a penny in return. They have identified with the cause and fought with me. Yes – as well as very corrupt people there are others out there who are salt of the earth!
How did you feel at the moment of victory?
Surprised but elated
What advice would you give to other potential activists?
Unite with others where you can, gain public support and fight to the bitter end!
As for the freedom of the Eastbourne borough, Liz seems a little embarrassed by the idea; I ask how she feels about it;
No different – the best prize will be the first baby born by caesarean section in Eastbourne DGH after 1st April next year, and the first multiple births. And then every one of these after! I’ll be celebrating for ages!!
Picture courtesy of the Eastbourne Herald. Liz Walke is on the left. On the right is Monica Corrina-Kavakli, whose hard work was also crucial to the campaign.
By: Freya Pugsley, 24.09.2008 | Comments (0)