‘The emergency call that saved my life’ - Lord Willis

Ackrill B'ness awards held at HIC 2010.  Phil Willis MP. AM100325w
Ackrill B'ness awards held at HIC 2010. Phil Willis MP. AM100325w

Former MP Phil Willis woke early on the morning of June 9. He had had a pain in his chest - he thought it was indigestion.

That pain spread to his arm. He didn’t know, but he was having a potentially deadly heart attack.

It was a call to non-emergency NHS number 111, and the calm and collected expertise of the operator on the other end of the phone, which saved his life.

“I’m very thankful,” he said, speaking to the Harrogate Advertiser this week after revealing just how ill he has been in recent weeks.

“The 111 service has clearly come under fire. But all I can do is compliment them. Who knows what could have happened.”

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, now 72, served as Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough for 13 years.

On his retirement in 2010, he was made Baron Willis of Knaresborough and has since served in the House of Lords.

It was in a House of Lords debate on Tuesday, discussing the beleaguered NHS 111 service, that Lord Willis revealed how it saved his life.

“I listened to the criticisms and all I did was relate how I found the service,” he said.

“On the ninth of June, early on the Sunday morning, I woke up having a heart attack. But it took a while to realise that was the case.

“My wife wanted to call an ambulance and I said ‘no, it’s not that serious’. I thought it was indigestion.

“It was when the pain started to move into my arm that I realised it was something more serious.

“We rang the 111 and immediately got through. Within a minute of being on the phone, the operator recognised what was happening.

“The response team arrived first, followed by an ambulance. And within 25 minutes I was in York District Hospital. I thought that was the most brilliant service.

“If it’s that good in Yorkshire, why can’t we have that throughout the country?”

The non-emergency number has been plagued with problems since it was launched in April, facing further criticism this week after NHS Direct pulled out of its contracts - a third of the service - because it was “financially unsustainable”.

But, says Lord Willis, Harrogate and Knaresborough’s 111, run by the ambulance service and based in York, is “superb”.

“Far too often, we look for the weaknesses in a service rather than saying where are the strengths?”, he said.

“Rather than knock the service full stop, we should look at what is working.”

The operator was well trained, he said, asking highly relevant questions, suggesting he take aspirin and offering to stay on the line with his wife while they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

“That wasn’t necessary for us, but imagine how reassuring that would be to an elderly person on their own,” he said.

Lord Willis has been recovering at home, ‘away from active duties’ he says, for six weeks. This week, he ventured back to London and the House of Lords before the summer recess.

“I’m in good form, although clearly on a different regime,” he said. “I’m now back working part time.

“My great difficult is that I enjoy too much the things I do. I’m massively involved in science policy, working with medical research committees.

“Sadly, you do find yourself running out of years. But I’ve made a good recovery - because of the support of the service and the operator’s speedy diagnosis.”